Cupid’s bow and arrow have well and truly hit their mark this kākāpō breeding season.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) has seen mammoth mating sessions, super-sized clutches, and reclusive bachelors getting back in the game.
With only 201 individuals left in existence, every breeding season is crucial for the critically endangered kākāpō, and 2022 is tracking toward one of the best breeding seasons on record.
As of Valentine’s day 2022, 131 eggs have been laid , 67 have been confirmed as fertile, and 12 chicks have hatched. All going well, DOC could be looking at somewhere between 30-50 new fledglings this season.
A weird, wacky wonderful season
Described as “the world’s weirdest birds” by DOC Kākāpō Recovery Science Advisor Dr Andrew Digby, kākāpō are birds that constantly surprise and delight with their unusual behaviours.
And this season has been no exception.
The programme’s known-oldest female bird, Nora, has been giving it her all to ensure the species survival. This year she has outdone herself, mating with two males in one night – for an impressive total time of over 90 minutes.
“She would probably be quite tired after all that,” says DOC Ranger Bronwyn Jeynes.
She’s an absolutely delightful bird, an incredible incubator and amazing mum. She’s super into it.”
Looking to the boys, Ralph is a returnee to the kākāpō dating scene. Described by Andrew as “a shy fellow”, before this season, Ralph hadn’t mated since 1999.
On the other end of the spectrum, there have been some very successful males.
Kōmaru bred for the first time in 2019 and produced an incredible 10 chicks that season. This year he’s mated with eight different females – making him now one of the most sought after males on his island.
Kōmaru might become a victim of his own success, with talk of shipping him off to another island – to let some other males have a better chance and keep the population genetically diverse.
Another pleasant surprise for the year has been some very large clutch sizes. A standard clutch is two to three eggs. Andrew reports that this year the team have seen several clutches with four eggs.
More birds and a more diverse gene pool
Perhaps the biggest excitement of the year is the spread of important genes through the population.
Andrew says this all comes down to a now deceased bird called Richard Henry.
“Richard Henry is a bird of particular significance for the kākāpō,” says Andrew.
“He was the last surviving Fiordland bird. His very unique DNA has been crucial in ensuring genetic diversity among the population.
“This year we’ve got more birds that are descendants from Richard Henry at breeding age than we’ve ever had before.”
This season three females have chosen to mate with Gulliver, whose father was Richard Henry.
This is pretty promising news, as Bronwyn explains it, “Gulliver has some unique genes for disease resistance that we really want to continue in the population.”
While it might seem that Gulliver is a late bloomer, kākāpō are believed to live up around 60-80 years. Males don’t start breeding till around age seven, so there’s still plenty of time for Gulliver to pass his genes along.
Reasons for the successful season
Aside from the hard working people at DOC, positive environmental factors have also played a big hand in creating a successful season.
Kākāpō don’t breed every year. Their breeding seasons are dependent on mast years.
Masting is a phenomenon where all the plants of one species produce lots of fruit at the same time. Masting tree species often don’t produce fruit every year, instead fruiting in vast quantities every two to six years.
Kākāpō’s breeding food source in southern New Zealand is the rimu tree – and this season rimu seed counts have been very high.
“We’ve had a huge rimu mast this season. It’s been at levels that would support almost every female to breed,” says Bronwyn.
In a poor breeding season, where environmental conditions and food supply aren’t optimal, birds may decide not to mate or take part in the breeding season.
As the breeding programme goes from success to success a new challenge is finding enough suitable habitat for a growing population.
DOC are looking at more predator free or low-predator islands or mainland sites as the only real long-term solution is having large predator free spaces.
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Want to help the world’s weirdest bird?
Here are the top three ways you can support the kākāpō:
- Make a donation or volunteer on the kākāpō recover programme.
- Help work toward a Predator Free 2050 by backyard trapping or joining your local predator free community group.
Spread the world – tell your network about the importance of the predator free movement, and how it’s helping to save our beloved bird.