Of the six species of the parrot family native to New Zealand, the kakapo, Strigops habroptilus, is at once the largest, most interesting, and least brightly coloured. Of ancient origin and without close relatives elsewhere, it once occurred over much of the three main islands and on the main island of the Chatham group as well. Long before European settlement, however, its numbers and range had begun to shrink. It disappeared from the Chathams before the beginning of the nineteenth century, had become scarce in the North Island well before 1850, and has been dwindling in numbers in the South Island and Stewart Island throughout the European era. In the last 10 years or so, the only reliable reports of its continued survival have come from Fiordland and Stewart Island.
Its habitat is mainly mountain beech forests with their mossy floors and adjoining areas of subalpine scrub, tussock grassland, fern, and other low vegetation. It has been found from sea level to well above the upper limit of the forest; and characteristic signs of the species' presence, especially when it was more abundant, were well-tended tracks, dusting bowls, and “chews”. All of these are exceedingly rare and local nowadays. The “chews” result from a peculiar method of feeding in which leaves such as those of mountain flax or tall tussock grasses are frayed and sucked, and the fibrous residue is left hanging on the plant in a loose ball. Other foods are berries, fern roots, moss, and even lizards. Kakapo nest in large natural crevices or specially excavated burrows. The usual clutch is two to four white eggs and it has been claimed that all birds breed only in alternate years. This unlikely assertion awaits confirmation.
Plumage is predominantly moss-green above and yellowish-green below, with barrings of black and brown. The face is rather owl-like and there are hairlike feathers sensitive to touch at the base of the extremely powerful bill. The species is nocturnal or semi-nocturnal and is virtually flightless. Its wings, however, are used for downward gliding over short distances. Its calls include a resonant “booming” in the breeding season, and various hissing, screaming, and mewing cries.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.