Meet the sci­en­tist

In 2019, the kākāpō pop­u­la­tion rose from 147 to 213 in­di­vid­u­als. Dr Jodie Crane dis­cusses the big­gest breed­ing sea­son on record, and prospects for these Crit­i­cally En­dan­gered birds.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Sav­ing a species of noc­tur­nal, flight­less par­rot in New Zealand

There’s a huge weight of re­spon­si­bil­ity. You can’t put aside the thought that every life is in­valu­able.

Kk p are huge, noc­tur­nal, flight­less par­rots, and in 1995 just 51 in­di­vid­u­als ex­isted in the world – their num­bers dec­i­mated by in­tro­duced preda­tors and habi­tat loss. K k p Recovery formed to con­serve the birds on New Zealand’s preda­tor-free is­lands to which they are now con­fined.

Jodie Crane joined the team in April 2018. She’s no stranger to bird field­work, hav­ing com­pleted her PhD on Aus­tralian bab­blers, worked as or­nitho­log­i­cal war­den on the Calf of Man and tracked seabirds with the RSPB. This is a new chal­lenge: “With species work, a year is usu­ally enough to get your head around ev­ery­thing. But this project has a whole level of com­plex­ity I never imag­ined.”

K k p breed­ing is stim­u­lated by the abun­dance of berries from rimu trees, bumper years be­ing called mast years. “It’s been a mega­mast year,” says Crane. “The trees have masted in ab­so­lutely pro­lific pro­por­tions. Our model pre­dicted the first mat­ing in early Fe­bru­ary and it was ac­tu­ally be­fore Christ­mas.”

The con­di­tions al­lowed the team to dou­ble-clutch the birds: the first clutch was taken for ar­ti­fi­cial in­cu­ba­tion, leav­ing fe­males free to lay a sec­ond clutch. For some nests, trans­port­ing the eggs in­volved a tough three-hour night hike.

“There’s a huge weight of re­spon­si­bil­ity. You can’t put aside the thought that every life is com­pletely in­valu­able,” she ex­plains. Upon hatch­ing, the team acted as sur­ro­gate moth­ers un­til the chicks could be re­turned to the nest. It paid off. “We cur­rently have 70 sur­viv­ing chicks from this breed­ing sea­son! It’s the big­gest breed­ing sea­son since con­ser­va­tion ef­forts be­gan.”

All birds wear trans­mit­ters that pro­vide in­for­ma­tion on lo­ca­tion and ac­tiv­ity, and even mat­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties are man­aged: “One male had fa­thered a third of the pop­u­la­tion, which isn’t ideal from a ge­netic per­spec­tive. So we moved him to a dif­fer­ent is­land to al­low some of the other males to breed.”

Breed­ing won’t hap­pen again on Whenua Hou and An­chor Is­land un­til the next mast­ing, prob­a­bly in 2022. In the mean­time, there’s a wel­come prob­lem to deal with. “We have too many k k p ! So, we’re set­ting up new sites for them, and even con­sid­er­ing a main­land site, which would be a huge and sym­bolic step for the project.”

After this year’s ex­tra­or­di­nary sea­son, the mood is up­beat but also sober. Since the cel­e­bra­tory an­nounce­ment of 213 birds in Septem­ber, two have died from as­pergillo­sis, a fun­gal in­fec­tion that killed seven oth­ers ear­lier in the year.

“It’s a re­minder that though k k p con­ser­va­tion has come a long way, there are still mas­sive chal­lenges. It brings you back to re­al­ity pretty quickly.”

Jo Wim­penny

The team act as sur­ro­gates be­fore re­turn­ing chicks to the nest. Be­low: birds are reg­u­larly health checked.

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