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Going to Extremes

Without the extraordinary dedication of a few conservationists, New Zealand's kakapo would likely have gone the way of the dodo

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Although New Zealand abounds in faunal oddities such as the kiwi bird, none of its creatures have attracted quite as much attention recently as the kakapo. Local newspapers raptly follow their sex lives, and the government sponsors nationwide contests for schoolchildren to name fledglings. But for all the ink spilled on the bird’s behalf, few people have ever seen one in the wild—and not only because it lives in remote sanctuaries but also because the kakapo has excellent camouflage and engages in a “freeze and blend in” strategy. It’s a strategy that works well against eagle-eyed raptors but does little to safeguard it against tree-climbing predators that hunt by smell. “If the bird only knew its powers, it wouldn’t fall such an easy prey to stoats [a kind of weasel] and ferrets,” Douglas wrote in 1899. “One grasp of his powerful claws would crush either of those animals, but he has no idea of attack or defense.”

 

The kakapo, of course, recalls the dodo (the former resident of what is now the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean), which became extinct 300 years ago. Like the dodo, the kakapo is a large and solitary creature too heavy to fly. Also like the dodo, it nests on the ground. Like the kakapo, the dodo was numerous and longlived and a slow and infrequent breeder, which meant it could not bounce back once its population was diminished.

 

To be sure, the kakapo was once considered extinct: the aboriginal people of New Zealand, the Maori, hunted them with such gusto that by the time Europeans arrived in the early 19th century, the bird had largely disappeared from North Island, the more populous of the country’s two main islands. European settlers, along with the pets and vermin they brought with them, accelerated the decline. Between 1949 and 1973, the government wildlife conservation agency launched more than 60 search and rescue expeditions, mainly to the inaccessible mountains in the southwestern region of South Island, the kakapo’s final bastion, a tract of large beech forests and Yosemite-like rock faces.

 

In the 1960s, five birds were trapped in South Island’s Fiordland National Park, but all died in captivity. In the park in 1974, Merton heard what he was certain were the distinctive shrieks and screams—somewhere between a donkey’s bray and a pig’s squeal—of an agitated kakapo. It took him two weeks to trap the old, bedraggled male, whom researchers named Jonathan Livingston Kakapo. Over the course of the next three years, Merton and a half dozen other volunteers combed the dense forest and cliff faces, turning up 17 additional males and a couple of mysteries: Where had all the females gone and what should they make of the immaculately groomed trails they found in the heavy vegetation, punctuated by round bowls of exposed earth about 1 1/2 feet wide and 5 inches deep? It appeared, recalled volunteer Rod Morris, as if “we were stumbling across the ruins of a tiny, ancient civilization.” What did the birds use these bowls and trails for?

 

Merton knew that Maori lore told of a whawharua—a secret playground where kakapos gathered to perform mysterious nightly rituals. As he and other researchers examined the freshly used bowls and tracks, the Maori story began to appear almost plausible. The area, the biologists concluded, was a kakapo nightclub of sorts, where males would gather to prance, display and make loud vocalizations in hopes of attracting elusive females.

 

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