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If you have felt the skies above you seem increasingly empty of chirping birds, you are not alone. A 2018 study by BirdLife International revealed that 40 percent of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in decline, and one in eight bird species is threatened with global extinction. Now, some scientists are using cutting-edge technology to revive the critically-endangered kākāpō; if successful, the techniques used may help save other bird species as well.
Endemic to New Zealand, the kākāpō (pronounced kuh-kaa-pow), an owl-faced nocturnal parrot, is unlike any other member of its species. Evolved in a world without mammals and human interference, the bird lost its ability to fly and added on weight, giving it the double honor of being the world's only flightless parrot and its heaviest one!
Once found in large numbers across New Zealand, the adorable bird, which can weigh up to 11 pounds (5 kilograms), is now teetering on the brink of extinction. While ruthless predators such as raccoons, cats, and stoats are largely to blame, the kākāpō's peculiar breeding habits don't help either. For starters, the parrots, which can live up to 100 years, do not start breeding until the age of five. They also only mate when the rimu trees — their primary food source — bear large amounts of fruit, an event that happens every two to four years.
To make it worse, the females need to be wooed with an elaborate courtship display. During breeding years, the males dig a shallow bowl on a prominent ridge or hilltop and settle down inside to attract a mate with a deep, low-frequency "boom" every 1 to 2 seconds. The sound, which can be heard 300 to 400 meters away on flat ground, or up to 5 km away in the mountains, can last for up to eight hours at a time, for a period of two to three months. Though researchers are not sure what qualities appeal to the female kākāpōs, they have observed some males attracting several mates while others not being selected at all.
Given the impediments to increasing the population, it is not surprising that as of 2019, only 114 adult parrots remain. Though the number is low, it is a substantial improvement over the 51 kākāpō specimens that remained on Earth in 1995. The population boost can be attributed to the government's decision to relocate the 51 birds to three small predator-free islands off the coast of New Zealand, and the efforts of a team led by Andrew Digby, a kākāpō scientist for the New Zealand Department of Conservation.
To help them with their efforts, the researchers tagged each bird with an electronic tracker. “Every single kākāpō wears a smart transmitter,” says Digby. The information emitted by the transmitters is picked up by a series of data loggers scattered across the island and sent to the scientists, allowing them to pinpoint where the birds are nesting, and also know if they are sick.
The trackers also allow the team to control the parrots' diet, via a sensor that opens each bird’s individualized feeding station — filled with the appropriate amount of food — at the right time. Ensuring that the kākāpō birds stay at their optimal weight of 3.3lbs (1.5 kg) is crucial, since chubby females give birth to mostly male chicks, while skinny ones fail to produce eggs altogether! "If they didn’t have transmitters on, they would probably be extinct now, or close to it,” says Digby.
Once the birds lay eggs, the eggs are carefully extracted from the nests and taken to an incubator room to hatch. "We tend to be more successful at raising kākāpō eggs than the kākāpō," says Digby. "We break less of them." Once the eggs hatch, each mother is given only one chick, while the rest of the newborns are hand-reared. This helps ensure they all receive enough food.
While such efforts to bring back a species whose contribution to the ecosystem remains unclear may seem excessive, Digby believes it is vital for the future of all endangered animals. The researcher says, "From an ecosystem point of view, we don’t know what [bringing the kākāpō back to stable numbers] would produce. They would be amazing seed dispersers, which would be important from the ecological ecosystem point of view." But, he adds, “Kākāpō are like the panda of the bird world. People really engage with kākāpō, people who wouldn’t otherwise normally be interested in conservation or wildlife at all."
Resources: qz.com, www.doc.govt.nz