Legendary Parrot Who Saved His Species Dead at 80

A kakapo bird looks straight into the camera.

Jake Osborne / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Richard Henry may sound like an oddly dignified name for a bird -- but its bearer deserves nothing less. Richard was a highly-endangered Kakapo, a flightless parrot from New Zealand, who is credited by many with single-wingedly saving his species. In the 1970s, researchers believed that the Kakapo had been nearly wiped out and that extinction was inevitable -- that is, until they ran across Richard. With his genetic material, conservationists were able to slowly recover the species. But today, after decades of service, Richard Henry has passed away at the ripe old age of 80 -- leaving behind a legacy that, with any luck, will be everlasting. Aside from being rare, kakapo are actually quite unique for a parrot in that they are nocturnal, flightless, and heavy -- perfect traits for their virtually predator-less native habitat in New Zealand, but those characteristics put them at a terrible disadvantage when Europeans began to settle the islands, bringing animals and a tradition of clearing forests for farmland.

Even early on, scientists at the time noticed that the bird numbers were in decline -- due mainly to the factors described above, but also because they were a curiosity among foreign biologists and animal collectors, though the species didn't fair well in captivity.

By the 1890s, it was clear that lest some action be taken to protect them, the kakapo would soon go the way of that other flightless bird, the dodo. So, the New Zealand government set aside a reserve for the kakapo on the Resolution Island, where they were to be protected from the many threats they faced from humans and other invasive species. Appointed to oversee the birds was a dedicated naturalist by the name of Richard Henry.

Their safety in the reserve was short lived, however; predatory animals were able to swim to the island and decimate the kakapo population there. A small group of birds were rescued and moved to other islands, but the same problems only repeated. Finally, they found some refuge on the island of Fiordland, but their numbers continued to decline well into the 20th century. By the 1970s, it biologists feared they'd become extinct.

Then, on an exploratory expedition to Fiordland in 1975, researchers found a single middle-aged kakapo male, offering hope that the birds could yet be saved -- and they named him after that early kakapo conservationist.

When a small group of other birds were discovered on another island, Richard Henry became instrumental in producing offspring by offering some diversity to the dwindling population.

Over the next few decades later, with the help of Richard Henry, the kakapo species has seen an encouraging increase. Thanks to the dedication of a devout group of conservationists who have worked tirelessly to save the birds -- as well as concerned citizens from throughout the world -- the kakapo population currently stands at 122 birds. And, in the tradition of Richard Henry, each of the birds has a name, too. But his legacy hardly ends there.

A juvenile Kakapo being fed by a hand.

Kimberley Collins / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

With his death at 80 years of age, that very important kakapo leaves behind a better world for his kind. The Department of Conservation's Kākāpō Program Scientist Ron Moorhouse says Richard Henry's death marks the end of an era.

"Richard Henry was a living link to the early days of kākāpō recovery, and perhaps even to a time before stoats when kakapo could boom unmolested in Fiordland," said Dr Moorhouse.
Richard Henry had not bred since 1999, and had been showing signs of age including blindness in one eye, slow moving and wrinkles. A sample of his DNA has been preserved.
The kākāpō breeding season is now well under way on both Codfish and Anchor Islands. If chicks are hatched on Anchor, they could well be the first kākāpō chicks in Fiordland since Richard Henry himself was a chick.
We had a great year last year when 33 chicks were born, and we're hoping for more this year. The males are booming well, so we're optimistic. It's sad to lose Richard Henry but the main thing is that the kākāpō population is growing...

There's something moving about the story of this bird, so full of tragedy, and hope. Perhaps there was a time when he could sense a darkness closing in on his species, when his lonely calls into the dim forests were all unanswered. But in the end, Richard Henry survived the night and chanced a glimpse of a new beginning for his kind.

It must be a bitter-sweet farewell for those dedicated humans who knew him long, but of course, there's more work to do -- it's egg-laying season for the kakapo soon. And, while Richard Henry's death may mark the end of an era, it marks the beginning of a new one, too.

Thanks to Sirocco Kakapo for the tip.