15 Facts About the Oddball Kakapo

Sirocco kakapo parrot
Sirocco has become the ambassador parrot for kakapo conservation. New Zealand Department of Conservation [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

The kakapo is an unusual bird. The world's largest parrot was once common throughout its native New Zealand until predators hunted it to the brink of extinction. Now the stocky green-and-yellow bird is critically endangered and lives only on four islands off the coast of New Zealand. It's the focus of a considerable conservation effort from the New Zealand Department of Conservation's Kakapo Recovery program.

From its funky facial hair to its elaborate courtship rituals, the kakapo is certainly special. Here are a dozen strange facts about this unique bird.

1. Every Kakapo Has a Name

first kakapo chick of 2016
The first kakapo chick of the 2016 breeding season. New Zealand Department of Conservation

There are currently 211 known adult birds, each named and extensively monitored. That's a big jump from 1995, when there were only 51 known birds. Because there are so few birds, all kakapos have names. They are named by members of the Kakapo Recovery program. Older birds were typically given English language names like Boomer, Flossie and Ruth. More recent chicks have Maori names such as Ra, Ruapuke and Taeatanga. Some birds have been named for people who are involved in conservation efforts. For example, Attenborough was named in honor of conservationist Sir David Attenborough.

2. Kakapos Don't Really Look Like Parrots

Kakapo parrot feathers
Kakapo feathers are a mix of green, yellow, and black or dark brown. ian35mm / Getty Images

The kakapo looks more like an owl and is often referred to as an owl-parrot. It has a whisker-y face that looks as if it's sporting muttonchops or sideburns. They are a mossy greenish-yellow, mottled color with black and dark brown patches called chevrons sprinkled in their feathers above and lots more yellow underneath. They typically have gray feet. Their scientific name Strigops habroptila actually means "owl-like," according to Animal Diversity Web, and refers to their bristle-like feathers that surround their eyes, ears, and beak.

3. They Are Nocturnal Loners

Its name means "night parrot" in Maori because it prefers solo nighttime walkabouts. Kakapo Recovery calls the parrot a "midnight rambler" due to its penchant for sleeping all day and wandering through the forest alone at night. These birds typically tuck themselves into a tree during the day and head out as a party of one in the evening to find food. These relatively solitary birds look for company only when it's time to breed or raise their chicks. But that doesn't mean the birds don't make their presence known. According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation, neighboring birds likely communicate with loud "skrarks."

4. Kakapos Are Single Moms

three kakapo chicks
Three kakapo chicks check out the world. Their mom will feed them until they're 6 months old. New Zealand Department of Conservation [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

After the business of breeding is over, males abandon the females to let them raise their chicks alone. The female usually lays one to four eggs. She has to leave the newborn chicks alone at night while she looks for food. The chicks are vulnerable to predators because their nests are particularly smelly and easy to find. Typically, the chicks leave the nest after about 10 weeks, but often a mother will continue to feed them until they reach 6 months old.

5. They Don't Rush Relationships

ripe rimu fruit
Kakapos typically only breed when rimu fruits are ripe.  New Zealand Department of Conservation / Flickr

Kakapos "live life in the slow lane," according to Kakapo Recovery. Males don't start breeding until they're about 4 or 5 years old, and females don't start until they are about 6 years old. Even then, breeding doesn't take place every year. It typically happens every two to four years and seems to be dependent on the availability of food. They typically only breed in New Zealand rimu trees are fruitful, which is about every two to four years.

6. Courtship is Serious Business for Kakapos

Or at least it's loud. During breeding season, males go up to prominent rocks or hilltops, inflate like a balloon and emit a sonic boom-like noise. This "boom" announces to all interested females that the males are ready to mate. After 20 to 30 booms, they make a "ching" — a high-pitched metallic call. This pinpoints a male's position so a female can find him. This boom-ching pattern can go on continuously for up to eight hours every night for two to three months. This is called lek breeding: when males gather to show off and compete for a mate

7. They Can Thank One Man for Initially Taking Notice of Their Plight

Though he didn't get much credit at the time, one man made saving this interesting bird his mission. In 1893, Richard Henry noticed that populations of the bird were plummeting, and though he had no format scientific training, he correctly connected their demise to the influx of ferrets and stoats to New Zealand.

He became the caretaker of Resolution Island and over the years, he rowed hundreds of the birds from the mainland to the island to get them out of harm's way. In fact, one of the most important kakapos was named after him, as you'll learn in the video above.

8. They Make Some Unusual Noises

Boom-chings aside, the kakapo squawks like a typical parrot, but it has a more varied vocabulary. Some of its other noises sound like a donkey's bray or a pig's squeal.

Male kakapos have a large thoracic air sac which they are able to inflate to make their loud booming noises. They're the only parrots with these sacs and these capabilities. If the air is still enough, the sound can be heard from as far as 3 miles (5 kilometers) away.

Listen to many of the kakapo's noises courtesy of the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

9. They Face a New Threat

Though they are making a significant comeback, the birds also seem to face new threats at every turn. The newest is a respiratory infection called aspergillosis, which is caused by an airborne fungus. It's the same fungus that infects humans. Nine of the birds were lost to the disease in 2019, but researchers think it was caused by significant spore loading in nests on Whenua Hou, the island where all of the aspergillosis cases started. Increased "nest stress" leads to decreased immunity, a problem the researchers are tackling to reduce the number of future cases.

10. They Freeze When Noticed

two-month old kakapo chick
A kakapo will stay totally still if the bird thinks it has been seen. New Zealand Department of Conservation [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

It may not the most successful mode of defense, but when a kakapo is disturbed or frightened, it keeps absolutely still and hopes it won't get noticed. The kakapo likely developed this behavior when most of New Zealand's predators were birds and hunted by sight, so freezing might have worked. It's not so handy for predators who hunt using their sense of smell. And, as you'll learn, the kakapo has a rather strong, distinctive smell, so it's easy for predators to find — whether it is frozen in place or not.

11. Kakapos Smell Like Your Attic

kakapo chicks in nest
It's easy for predators to find kakapo chicks because their nests have a distinct smell. New Zealand Department of Conservation / Flickr 

Kakapos have kind of a musty smell, especially when they drop their feathers. Biologist Jim Briskie of Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand, told National Geographic that kakaopo smell like "musty violin cases."

Others have said that kakapos smell kind of pleasant and even sweet. TerraNature describes them as "sweet smelling like honey or flower-like." Having such a distinctive smell makes it easier for the birds to find each other. But that's why it's so easy for predators to find them too.

12. They're Heavyweights

When it comes to birds, kakapos are at the top of their weight class. Adult males weigh more than four pounds (2 kilograms), and they're about two feet (.6 meters) long. On average, males weigh about 4.4 to 8 pounds (2 to 4 kilograms) and females weigh 2.2 to 5.5 pounds (1 to 2.5 kilograms).

By comparison, various Amazon species of parrots are only 10 to 17 inches (25-43 centimeters) long and weigh 6 to 27 ounces (.17 to .7 kilograms).

13. Kakapos Can't Fly

Although this parrot has large wings, it doesn't use them for locomotion. Instead, this agile climber and jumper uses them to keep its balance and slow it down when leaping from high places. Kakapos flap their wings as they are heading to the ground to help with a relatively easy landing. It's not pretty and they don't fly, "but at best manage a controlled plummet," according to New Zealand Birds Online.

Lighter-weighing female birds have a little more success. They can use their short wings to glide, often managing to glide about 10 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) before having to stop.

14. They Are Long-lived

The kakapo lives an average of 58 years and may live as long as 90 years. Because kakapos don't have to fly, it lowers the bird's metabolic rate. That means the kakapo's daily energy expenditure is low. In one study published in Notornis, a journal by the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, researchers said that the kakapo had the lowest daily energy expenditure recorded for any bird. With such a low energy output,that could help explain why the bird has such a long life.

15. Some Kakapos Can Be Quite Friendly

Researchers who work with the birds notice they each have their own distinct personality. Many are curious and enjoy interacting with humans. In one BBC special, a hand-raised kakapo named Sirocco gained international fame after trying to mate with zoologist Mark Carwardine's head. Sirocco is now the spokes-bird for New Zealand conservation. Although Carwardine likely didn't think so at the time, narrator Stephen Fry certainly did, and the video is incredibly entertaining.