Kakapo Facts

Lenard

Lenard

08 May 2021

young kakapo

The kakapo or owl parrot is an adorable, flightless bird. It looks like a cross between an owl and a parrot. These nocturnal parrots only live in the forests of New Zealand and have a reputation for being friendly creatures. Ground-bound kakapos can weigh up to nine pounds and tends to freeze when threatened. When they need to hide, the bird species’ mottled green feathers provide woodland camouflage and the large beaks give them a comical look that is a cross between an owl and a muppet.

Kakapos are nocturnal and solitary birds that stay in the same territory for years. They forage on the ground and climb to the tops of trees for food. They sometimes jump from trees and flail their wings, but they can only manage a controlled descent at best.

The unusual birds are so famous that they were named New Zealand’s 2020 bird of the year. Unfortunately, these unusual ground-dwelling birds are now among the rarest birds on Earth due to a massive decline in their population. Do you know that only 211 kakapos are alive today? They are confined to four small islands off the New Zealand coast. 

Learn all there is to know about these large and friendly parrots with these interesting kakapo facts.

  1. Kakapos split off from their ancestors around 30 million years ago.
  2. English ornithologist George Robert Gray first described the bird scientifically in June 1845.
  3. Adult kakapos typically grow around 23 to 25 in (58 to 64 cm) in length.
  4. Like other parrot species, their feet have two front-facing and two back-facing digits.
  5. Their eggs hatch after 30 days of incubation.
  1. The kakapo is a species of parrot.
  2. They are primarily active at night.
  3. Female owl parrots are smaller than males.
  4. These birds are sensitive to light but have poor overall eyesight.
  5. They have a remarkably slow metabolism compared to other birds.
  6. The name “kakapo” comes from the Māori word kākāpō, which translates to “night parrot”.
  7. Their closest living relatives are the New Zealand kaka (Nestor meridionalis) and the kea (Nestor notabilis).
  8. The scientific name of the kakapo is Strigops habroptilus.
  9. They belong to the New Zealand parrot superfamily, Strigopoidea.
  10. Its genus name, Strigops, derives from the ancient Greek term for “owl-faced”. The species name, habroptilus, translates to “soft feather”.
  1. No owl parrots are found in their original habitats.
  2. Because New Zealand only has three native non-marine mammals, all of which are small bats, the kakapo filled an ecological role that normally would be filled by a small mammal.
  3. Owl parrots were New Zealand’s 2020 bird of the year.
  4. Kakapos and the conservation efforts regarding them have been featured in many books and documentaries.
  5. They normally walk with their faces close to the ground and stand upright when they feel alarmed.
Table of Contents

Kakapos have facial discs similar to owls.

One of the most distinctive features of the kakapo is its prominent facial disc, which closely resembles that of an owl’s face. Its facial disc is covered in brown, bristle-like feathers and it surrounds the eyes, the ears, and the ivory-colored beak. Because of this distinct feature, early European settlers gave it the name “owl parrot.” Kakapos only superficially look like owls, however, they’re actually, fully, parrots.

These weird birds also have whisker-like feathers around their beaks, and some suggest that they use these to feel the ground as they walk. There is not enough evidence to back up this claim, however.

Kakapos are the only parrot species in the world that can’t fly.

One of the most important kakapo facts you should know is that kakapos are flightless birds. They are unique among parrots because they are the only parrot species that can’t fly.

Its wings are rather small and have reduced muscles. The pectoral muscles of flying birds typically make up a significant portion of their muscle mass, but in kakapos, these muscles only make up 3.3% of their muscle mass. Their breast bones also lack a keel, a structure where the wing muscles of other birds attach to the wing muscles.

They have strong legs and are excellent climbers.

kakapo
Source: Kimberley Collins on Flickr

Although the kakapo cannot fly, it developed strong legs to get around. These flightless birds move around by walking in a jog-like gait and can travel long distances to forage for food. Their short but muscular legs also allow them to climb to the top of even the tallest of trees in their range.

They use their wings as parachutes when they leap from trees.

Although the wings of owl parrots are too small to lift their bodies off the ground to achieve flight, they aren’t entirely useless. When kakapos climb trees, they can use their wings to help maintain their balance.

Kakapos can also spread their wings to use as parachutes when they leap from the branches of trees. Their wings can break their fall and also allow them to descend at a 45-degree angle.

They are the heaviest species of parrots.

Because kakapos don’t need to fly, they can get much heavier than other parrot species. Their large, round bodies can store a lot of fat. Mature kakapos weigh anywhere from 2 to 9 pounds or 0.95 to 4 kilograms.

Male kakapos are typically heavier than female kakapos, with male kakapos having an average weight of 4.5 pounds or 2.06 kilograms, and females weighing an average of 2.8 pounds or 1.28 kilograms.

Interestingly, kakapos are even heavier than the largest parrot species, the hyacinth macaw, which has the scientific name of “Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus.” On average, kakapos weigh 14 ounces or 400 grams more than hyacinth macaws!

Kakapos are herbivores.

The kakapo diet consists entirely of plants. They eat native fruits, seeds, pollen, leaves, buds, flowers, and rhizomes.

Kakapos also eat moss and fungi, as well as the bark and sapwood of trees. Their diet varies according to the season, and their favorite food seems to be the fruit of the rimu tree. When these fruits are in season, kakapos will feed on these fruits exclusively.

Birds have a specialized organ in their digestive tract that crushes the food that they ingest. This organ is called a gizzard. Kakapos don’t rely much on these organs to crush their food, however. The beaks of kakapos are capable of finely crushing plant matter, so these parrots have a relatively small gizzard compared to other birds.

Scientists also postulate that kakapos employ the help of beneficial bacteria in their guts to help them digest plant matter.

They leave noticeable trails whenever they eat.

When kakapos eat, they let their presence be known. This is because they strip out the nutritious parts of the plants, and leave a trail of indigestible plant fibers. The presence of these fibers in an area serves as a great indicator that kakapos have eaten there.

Young kakapos love to play.

Kakapos are playful creatures, especially the young ones. Juvenile owl parrots frequently engage in play fighting with their nestmates. In doing so, they often lock the necks of other kakapos under their chin.

You can distinguish between young and adult individuals by looking at their coloration. Young individuals have feathers that are duller green in color, and they have relatively fewer yellow feathers than adults. They notably also have shorter beaks, tails, and wings.

Kakapos are friendly and have no innate fear of humans.

kakapo chicks, friendly kakapo
Source: Alastair Morrison, Department of Conservation on Flickr

Perhaps among the most notable kakapo facts is that they aren’t scared of humans, like most other prey animals. Researchers often note that these strange birds have distinct personalities, but most of them are quite curious animals. They reportedly approach humans and even enjoy interacting with them.

Their innate friendliness is likely due to the fact that they evolved in isolation. These friendly parrots evolved on an island with no mammalian predators, so they didn’t evolve to run away as a survival mechanism.

People used to keep kakapos as pets.

Because of the docile and friendly attitudes of these birds, the Māori and European settlers both kept kakapos as pets. In 1845, English ornithologist George Edward Grey even described their behaviors as more similar to dogs than birds.

They can live up to 90 years of age.

One of the most interesting kakapo facts is that these flightless birds are among the most longest-lived birds in the world. These unusual parrots live to an average of 60 (plus or minus 20) years.

They reportedly can even live up to 90 years of age. Their long lives may be due to their slow metabolism — they have the lowest energy expenditure among all birds!

The coloration of their feathers provides them with excellent camouflage.

Kakapos have feathers that are moss green in color, but with yellowish tones. Their feathers also have a mottled or barred pattern, showing a few black and brownish-grey feathers alongside the green color.

This type of feather coloration provides kakapos with excellent camouflage, as their feathers appear to blend in with the surrounding leaves and grass.

They freeze when threatened.

When kakapos feel threatened, they do not run away from danger. Instead, they just freeze up and stay as still as possible. In doing so, they make full use of their camouflage and blend in better with the surrounding foliage. This serves as their only defense mechanism, and it works well for them when their only predators are birds of prey that rely heavily on their visions. Against mammalian predators, however, this defense mechanism is practically useless.

Their feathers are really soft.

Because kakapos can’t fly, they don’t need stiff and sturdy feathers that are strong enough to help them achieve flight. Instead, kakapos have really soft feathers. This feature gave them the specific epithet habroptilus or “soft feather”. Now that’s one of the most adorable kakapo facts to remember!

They have a good sense of smell.

kakapo
Source: Kimberley Collins on Flickr

Because kakapos are nocturnal animals and have relatively poor eyesight, they rely mostly on their noses. Owl parrots have a well-developed sense of smell, allowing them to distinguish between different odors while foraging for food.

This makes them unique among other parrots because they share this feat with only one other parrot species. Their olfactory bulb, (the region of the brain responsible for processing smell), is also remarkably large, further confirming that they have a good sense of smell.

They give off a musty-sweet odor.

Kakapos give off a distinct odor that biologist Jim Briskie described as similar to “musty violin cases”. Other researchers have described the smell of the kakapo as pleasant, sweet, and flower-like.

This smell makes it easier for the birds to find each other. However, upon the arrival of predators that use their sense of smell to find prey, this trait make kakapos extremely easy to find.

Owl parrots are generally solitary birds.

Although kakapos notably interact with humans, they aren’t actually social birds. These parrots are generally solitary and wander the forests alone at night. During the day, they sleep in shallow burrows or rocky fields. These solitary birds only meet up with other kakapos to mate and do not form paired bonds.

Kakapos breed at a relatively late age.

Because kakapos live quite long lives, they take a relatively long time to mature. They even go through adolescence before reaching adulthood as humans do. Kakapos reach adulthood at around five years of age, and some individuals reportedly reached maturity at a much later age.

Many female kakapos only start breeding at the age of nine. In contrast, some species of parrots can already breed after their first year of life.

It’s also worth noting that kakapos don’t breed every year, making them among the slowest birds to reproduce. They generally begin to breed when the native trees produce fruit heavily, which provides them with a steady supply of food. Because their favorite food source, the rimu tree, produces fruits heavily, once in four or five years, these unusual birds similarly tend to breed infrequently.

Male kakapos make loud mating calls every night for more than four months.

When it comes to mating, owl parrots take it rather seriously. During the breeding season, male owls travel away from their home range and go to ridges and hilltops. They then establish an arena or lek wherein males gather loosely in a group.

Females are free to choose their mates depending on their display, and males don’t chase after females who don’t choose them. The kakapo is the only flightless bird to have this “lek” mating system.

Male kakapos have to announce their presence to females from a great distance away, so they make loud, low-frequency booming calls to attract females. The males do this for six to eight hours every night for more than four months! Now that’s some serious commitment.

Males construct bowl-shaped courts to make their voices louder.

Because male kakapos need their voices to be heard by females, they have to construct bowl-shaped courts in the ground to amplify their calls. They build these courts next to trees and rocks to let their calls bounce off farther than they would in open fields.

Male kakapos move around their bowl-shaped courts to send their voices in different directions. The courts allow their voices to travel around 0.62 miles or one kilometer on a still night or as far as 3.1 miles or five kilometers when the winds carry the sounds!

Males kakapos take good care of their court and clean them regularly to ensure that they amplify their voices as efficiently as possible. During the start of the breeding season, the male kakapos also often fight to get the best court. The male kakapos fight using their beaks and claws while they screech and growl. This competition tends to be quite violent and can leave some males severely injured or dead.

Kakapo mothers raise their babies alone.

kakapo chicks
Source: Mike Bodie, Department of Conservation on Flickr

As solitary animals, kakapos don’t form any paired bonds. After mating, the female kakapos leave the arena and the male kakapos continue making loud calls in the hopes of attracting more females. Male kakapos don’t provide any form of parental care. The single mothers are then left to make their own nests and provide protection for their young.

Female kakapos return to their home range and make nests on the ground under the cover of plants or inside hollow tree trunks. They lay one to four eggs each breeding season, and there are intervals that last several days between each egg.

The female kakapos incubate the eggs alone every day, but they also must travel far from the nest at night to eat. This is a perilous task because predators may prey on the eggs while the mother is away. Furthermore, if the females don’t return, the eggs may die from the cold.

After around 30 days, helpless chicks with gray feathers emerge. The mother must feed them for three months. Baby kakapos leave the nest around 10 to 12 weeks after hatching and gradually become more independent. The caring mothers, however, can continue feeding their chicks for up to six months.

The sex ratio of their offspring depends on the mother’s condition and diet.

One of the most interesting facts about the kakapo is that the condition and diet of the kakapo mother can determine the ratio between male and female offspring. Because male offspring weigh around 30% to 40% more than female offspring, kakapo mothers are more likely to produce males when they’re well-fed and in good condition.

When competition is tough and food is relatively scarce, however, they tend to produce more female offspring. This aspect of their breeding system also applies to many mammals.

One kakapo attempted to mate with the head of a zoologist.

kakapo
Source: Mike Bodie, Department of Conservation on Flickr

In 2009, a hand-raised kakapo named Sirocco rose to international fame because of its fateful encounter with a renowned zoologist.

Mark Carwardine, the aforementioned zoologist, was revisiting Codfish Island to see how the endangered kakapos were doing. He was also alongside Stephen Fry as they were shooting the BBC television series, Last Chance to See.

Sirocco the kakapo approached Mark Carwardine and proceeded to mate with the zoologist’s head. This incident was not an isolated one, it seems. Because Sirocco was a hand-raised owl parrot that grew up away from other owl parrots, he imprinted on humans instead of his mother.

As he grew older, Sirocco preferred to interact with humans, instead of others of his kind. He would often make mating calls towards humans, and as stated above, mate with their heads!

Because Sirocco preferred humans over female kakapos, the scientists who worked with him deemed him to be unlikely to breed. They even designed a special sperm-collecting hat to retrieve his sperm when he mates with people’s heads, but this turned out to be ineffective.

However, his affinity with humans gave him global fame and even earned him a special place in the New Zealand government! In 2010, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key appointed him as the “Official Spokesbird for Conservation”. Sirocco thus serves to raise awareness of this critically endangered species.

These birds are historically important to the Māori people.

Kakapos have a special place in Māori history, and their prominence in Maori folklore serves as a testament to their historical significance. Because of their irregular breeding cycle that coincides with the heavy fruiting of the rimu tree, the Māori believed that these flightless parrots could tell the future.

Furthermore, kakapos reportedly dropped abundant berries in pools of water apparently to save food for the summer months. Legend has it that this activity gave rise to the Māori practice of immersing food in water to serve the same purpose.

Since their arrival in New Zealand more than 700 years ago, the Māori heavily hunted kakapos to eat their meat. Their meat reportedly was similar to lamb, both in taste and in texture. Other sources, however, stated that their meat had a strong flavor. The Māori used traps, snares, and dogs to hunt the kakapos at night.

Some even used fire to startle the birds, leading them to freeze up, and making them easier to capture. They took and ate the eggs of kakapos as well.

In addition to hunting them as food, the Māori people also hunted owl parrots for their skin and feathers. The Māori people wove the feathers with flax fiber to make clothing such as clothes and capes.

Each cloak had up to 11,000 individual feathers. These cloaks were remarkably beautiful and kept the wearers very warm. Kakapo feather cloaks are highly valued by the Māori, and they even have an old adage that involves these capes. The adage “You have a kākāpō cape and you still complain of the cold” refers to people who are never satisfied.

Humans introduced predators that nearly caused their extinction.

Historically, the only predators of the kakapo were birds of prey. This includes the New Zealand falcon, also known as Falco novaeseelandiae, and the now-extinct Haast’s eagle, also known as Hieraaetus moorei, and Eyles’s harrier with the scientific name of Circus teauteensis.

Despite being prey animals, kakapos were abundant before humans came along. In fact, fossil records show that before human arrival, they were New Zealand’s third most common bird.

When the humans arrived, however, they took some animals with them. Aside from dogs, the Māori brought Polynesian rats with them, which would prey on the kakapos’ eggs. European settlers also brought more animals that caused a more rapid decline in the population of kakapos. They brought more dogs with them, as well as other mammalian predators such as cats, stoats, and black rats. In the 1880s, they released mustelids such as ferrets, stoats, and weasels to control rabbit populations. Unfortunately, the mustelids also preyed on many other native species, including the kakapos.

Because they lack defense mechanisms against mammalian predators, kakapos became easy prey for the newly-introduced threats. Their loud calls alerted predators to their presence, as did their distinct smell. Kakapos also evolved to be nocturnal because their natural predators were mainly active during the day, but mammalian predators were more nocturnal and easily found the helpless birds.

At one point, there were only 51 kakapos left in the world.

Due to the continued predation of invasive predators brought by humans, kakapos became close to extinction. In 1995, only 51 kakapos were living on the planet, making them some of the rarest birds in the world.

The same year also marked the launch of New Zealand’s Kakapo Recovery Programme for the unusual bird’s conservation and repopulation. Multiple conservation efforts for kakapos began before then, but most were not sufficient to keep their populations high.

Every individual kakapo has a name.

Because only 51 kakapos remained in the world in 1995, scientists gave names to every individual. They were of utmost importance, after all, because they were the only remaining individuals of their species. Their names often either English names such as Boomer, Queenie, Phoenix, and Suzanne, or from the Māori language such as Whetū, Kōhengi, Mati-Mā, and Weheruatanga o te po.

All individuals also have GPS trackers and radio transmitters. Detailed data of each individual are also available. Every single one of them receives yearly check-ups to ensure their health.

Owl parrots now have an extremely low genetic diversity.

Animals generally benefit from having a diverse genome. Having great genetic diversity helps keep populations healthy, and provides a species with a greater capacity to adapt and evolve. Because of the small population of kakapos, however, they now have an extremely low genetic diversity. Most of them are related, and the birds now suffer from fertility problems and reduced resistance to diseases. Around 40% of their eggs are infertile.

They now only live in islands that are free of any predators.

Upon its launch, the Kakapo Recovery Programme sought to find an ideal habitat for numerous kakapos. The program involved eradicating predators from several islands and reintroducing the owl parrots to their new homes.

Currently, most of the kakapos live in predator-free islands in New Zealand. These islands are Codfish Island (Whenua Hou), Maud Island, Little Barrier Island (Hauturu), Chalky Island, and Anchor Island.

They’re still critically endangered, but their numbers are recovering.

The Kakapo Recovery Programme is still ongoing, and has reached considerable success. From only 51 individuals in 1995, the kakapo population has risen to a total of 205 individuals as of November 2020.

Although the owl parrot population is steadily rising, they’re still critically endangered and are yet to establish a self-sustaining population. A kakapo fact that might stir you into action.