Page last updated at 11:32 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 12:32 UK

Big brood of rotund rare parrots

By Kim Griggs
in New Zealand

Adult kakapo eating rimu fruit
The breeding season coincides with the ripening of the kakapo's favourite fruit

One of the world's rarest birds, New Zealand's kakapo, is now not quite so rare thanks to the arrival of 34 kakapo chicks.

Those chicks, born over the past few months, take the world population of the flightless nocturnal parrot ( Strigops habroptilus ) to 125.

In 1995, kakapo numbers had dwindled to just 51.

Kakapo chick
If we hadn't taken the chicks off the island to hand raise them, a lot of them would have died
Nyia Strachan
New Zealand Department of Conservation

"It's critically endangered but it's in a healthier position than it was a decade ago," says Nyia Strachan, a communications officer at New Zealand's Department of Conservation.

The prolific - by kakapo standards - breeding season was a combination of a group of females being mature enough to breed, and the prospect of a favourite kakapo food, rimu fruit.

Those factors prompted the usually solitary kakapo to perform their unusual courtship ceremony, where the male makes a particular low boom from the top of a hill.

It is a system of breeding known as "lek" and peculiar, in parrots, to the kakapo.

Fruit shortage

It was clearly successful. But so many chicks were born that there was not enough ripe rimu fruit on the birds' island home, which is known as both Whenua Hou and Codfish Island.

Twenty-one of the chicks are now being hand-reared in the nearby city of Invercargill.

"If we hadn't taken the chicks off the island to hand raise them, a lot of them would have died," says Ms Strachan.

Kakapo chick being fed
Fat chicks: the youngest birds need up to 10 feeds per day

Hand-rearing demands around-the-clock care from the kakapo team and many feeds.

The younger chicks need at least 10 feeds a day while the older ones are fed about five times a day.

For Don Merton, the renowned New Zealand conservationist who discovered the remnants of the kakapo population back in the 1970s and was intimately involved with their care for more than 30 years, the milestone of a population of 100 birds was "fantastic".

"It could never have happened without lots and lots of people over decades giving it their everything," says Mr Merton.

Long life

Until 1973, when 18 males were found in the rugged Fiordland area of New Zealand no one knew if the once-common kakapo still existed.

Finding a small population which included females on Stewart Island, an island off the southern coast of the South Island of New Zealand, gave conservationists hope.

Kakapo chick
This year's crop of chicks has boosted a critically endangered population

Then, after years of painstaking effort, a large number of females born in 2002 helped ensure this year's crop of chicks.

"Once they came on stream, once they matured, we knew we were going to have a very strong breeding lobby," says Mr Merton. "And it's all happened this year."

The next milestone, Ms Strachan says, is to have 100 of the long-lived bird that the kakapo team knows the age of.

"At the moment we have about 48 birds that we don't know the age of," she says. "It would be great to have a strong, healthy population that we know the ages of."

Mr Merton's dream is for the kakapo population to reach 500 - and to be independent of the human help they now need to survive.

"They'll need a lot of support for a long time yet," says Mr Merton, "but they are on the way."



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