The Bird that has Forgotten that it Cannot Fly

New Zealand has a number of flightless birds, one of the country’s national symbols is the bizarre Kiwi and until very recently this remnant of Gondwanaland was home to one of the largest members of the Aves that ever existed – the Moa.  Whilst reading the excellent “The Greatest Show on Earth – the Evidence for Evolution”, a book written by Richard Dawkins, we came across a passage about another one of New Zealand’s indigenous, flightless birds – the Kakapo.

The lack of mammals on the islands that make up New Zealand led to birds, that has reached this isolated landmass taking up those niches in the food chains that were occupied by mammals elsewhere in the world.  The Kakapo is a parrot, its ancestors could fly but it adapted to a life on the ground and as a result it lost the ability to fly.  With large adults weighing as much as 3 kilogrammes, these birds are rather ungainly.  They are slow moving and can manage to waddle around, but flying as their ancestors did is out of the question.  The Kakapo’s wings cannot support the weight of such a heavy and cumbersome bird, indeed, the Kakapo is the world’s largest parrot.

It may also be the longest-lived bird in the world, with a suspected life expectancy of about 90 years. None of the Kakapos known to scientists have yet died of old age and the chances are that some of the youngsters will out-live the people who are studying them.  Perhaps this is because they seem to do everything more slowly than other birds, these creatures tend to live life in the “slow lane”.

The Endearing New Zealand Kakapo

Picture Credit: BBC (Last Chance to See)

As the picture shows, these strange birds still venture into trees, it seems that the Kakapo has forgotten that it cannot fly.  Richard Dawkins, quotes the writer Douglas Adams who commented on this bizarre parrot for a television series called “Less Chance to See” thus:

“It is an exceptionally fat bird (a good-sized adult weighs roughly six or seven pounds) and its wings are just about good enough to waggle about a bit if it thinks it’s going to trip over.  But flying is completely out of the question.

Strangely, not only has it forgotten how to fly, it also seems to have forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly.  Legend has it that a seriously worried Kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground.”

The birds are almost entirely nocturnal and are one of the slowest breeding birds none to science.  Not a problem when once there were hundreds of thousands of them living all over New Zealand but Maori hunters and the white settlers took their toll on these birds who were very easy to catch.  The Kakapo’s habitats were destroyed to make way for farming and the human settlers introduced mammalian predators to New Zealand – cats, dogs and rats.

The Kakapo was driven to the point of extinction, numbers got as low as perhaps forty.  However,  in 1989, a remarkable preservation strategy was put in place by the New Zealand government to try to prevent this unique animal from dying out.  The Kakapo Recovery Plan was developed to translocate all the remaining Kakapos to carefully-prepared, predator-free islands for safe-keeping.  It seems to be working – the population has reached a total of nearly one hundred so far. It’s a positive first step towards recovery, albeit a tentative one.

Natural selection led to the Kakapo losing its ability to fly, this left it vulnerable to predators once they were introduced to its island home.  With luck and care (and the dedication of a team of hard-working scientists), this strange, night parrot might just have a future.

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