This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Sirocco the Kākāpō in Exile

DO YOU remember Scirocco the kakapo? It turns out he is facing exile.

Scirocco the kakapo gained notoriety last year when he tried to mate with Mark Carwardine's head on BBC2's Last Chance to See. The scene became an international sensation and thrust the kakapo, a species I have been fond of for some time, into the limelight. As a result of the programme, the Kakapo Recovery Project in New Zealand has been swamped with donations and Scirocco himself, at the suggestion of New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, became the "spokesbird" of conservation as part of New Zealand's role in the International Year of Biodiversity. But his promotion has come at a cost: Scirocco is now looking for a new home.

@Spokesbird: "Yep, I'm likely #flathunting, anyone have a spare bowl I can boom in? Im noisy, messy and rather charming, great flatmate http://ow.ly/1z4dB"

New Zealand has no native land mammals. Instead, birds, reptiles and insects have inherited the full range of ecological niches available. The kakapo is one such bird: a green, flightless, nocturnal and solitary parrot that for centuries went unharmed, making booming calls for mates from bowl-like ground structures. But with humans came ground-dwelling mammals that were, at best, competitors and, at worst, predators of the kakapo. The species was driven to the edge of extinction. From 1949, desperate expeditions set out to find and protect the species, but by 1977 only 18 had been found, all of them male. Thankfully a population of 200 were then found on Stewart Island, but even these were under threat from feral cats, so efforts were made to evacuate the entire species to offshore island sanctuaries. In 1995 there were just 51 birds in the world.

A dedicated team has since worked tirelessly to pull the population away from the brink of extinction, and the total number of kakapo now stands at 123. This work has been very difficult, with methods to encourage mating ranging from bizarre to desperate - kakapo are highly picky and breeding is dependent on cone production of the rimu tree*. But 123 is still a fragile number.

In August 2003, a parrot form of Psittacine beak and feather disease was identified in a type of rosella in Wellington. The disease causes juvenile mortality, long-term immunological depression, feather abnormalities and beak rot. It is caused by a virus and is highly contagious. There is no cure. It is thought that it was introduced by the import of exotic parrots into the country, and it is now widespread in wild populations of sulphur-crested cockatoos and Eastern rosella.

Scirocco's fame spread the word of the adorable kakapo. Rightly their plight is now commonly known, but Scirocco has become a victim of his own success. Now that he has visited the mainland, the risk of contaminating the world's only population if Scirocco were to return is too great. It is not known if kakapo are susceptible to the disease, and the disease has never wiped out a parrot species, but with the kakapo still endangered, nothing can be chanced.

All living kakapo on island sanctuaries will now be tested for the virus. Meanwhile, Scirocco is looking for a new home. So if you live in New Zealand and would like to adopt a frisky ball of feathers, now's your chance.

Sources and recommended reading:
Kakapo Recovery Programme: http://www.kakaporecovery.org.nz/
NZ Department of Conservation/Te Papa Atawhai: here and here
Massey University PBFD DNA test factsheet: here

*Such a relationship can be lethal: the tambalacoque tree of Mauritius was once thought to be dying out because in 1973 there were only 13 specimens, all of them 300 years old, with no known mechanism of germination. It was thought that the seeds could only germinate once they had passed through the digestive tract of one particular bird - the dodo. It has since been found that being eaten by turkeys can induce germination, so there is hope to save the species, although turkeys do not naturally like to eat the tambalacoque fruit.

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