Along with scientist Graeme Elliott and team leader Paul Jansen, Merton organized round-the-clock surveillance of the mother kakapo, whom they named Flossie. Whenever she left the nest at night to forage, a team of researchers moved in. They constructed a three-foot-high wall to prevent any eggs from rolling downhill and a plywood roof over the nest. And they dug a drain above the nest to divert heavy rainwater away from it. Flossie’s movements in and out of the nest set off a door chime that alerted researchers to her comings and goings. A miniature video camera kept an electronic eye on the chicks. Under this intense scrutiny, several broods, totaling 12 chicks in all, grew up over three seasons, raising the overall kakapo population, which had seen several deaths since 1982, to 62 birds.
There matters stood until 2001, when researchers on CodfishIsland noticed that the rimu trees there, sources of a nut (encased in a fleshy aril) that they believe somehow triggers kakapo breeding, appeared poised to deliver a bumper crop of fruit. In anticipation of the bounty, they airlifted 9 female kakapos from MaudIsland to join 12 females aready on Codfish. “This will be our moment of truth,” said Merton.
While the predictions of rimu plentitude proved accurate, the magnitude of the kakapo baby boom that resulted from it took even Merton by surprise. In 24 nests (four of the females nested twice), the research team found a total of 67 eggs. Once the eggs hatched, researchers got another surprise. Each nestling was eating up to 1,000 rimu nuts every time it was fed, sometimes four times a night. The kakapo mother had to gather rimu nuts furiously, at the pace of some 16 every minute. “This is all the more remarkable,” Merton says, “if you remember that the kakapo is flightless, and that it gathers its food at night, high in the forest canopy.” During the eight-month period between conception and the time when their chicks leave the nest, kakapo mothers were losing as much as a third of their body weight.
By summer’s end, 24 new birds, including 15 females, had raised the overall kakapo population to 86. “I think the kakapo have now turned the corner,” Merton told me. “They are on the way to recovery.” Still, he worried.
At a cost of about $500,000 per year, the Kakapo Recovery Programme is a major expense. If rescue and breeding efforts on the islands stopped for financial or political reasons, the bird would likely go the way of the dodo. To prevent that scenario, Merton and his colleagues hatched a plan to create a self-sustainable kakapo population on CampbellIsland, which is located halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica.