In search of a flightless, sex-crazed, and rarely seen parrot in a land once ruled by birds.
“You’re not likely to see one,” the volunteer coordinator told me on the phone while I was still in Brooklyn, two months before my trip to New Zealand. “Few volunteers do.”
In November, I was in Invercargill, at the southern tip of the South Island, waiting at the quarantine facility for the puddle-jumper flight that would take me to Codfish Island. I asked the red-haired ranger about my chances of spotting one.
“We leave them alone this time of year,” she said.
“Maybe I’ll come across one while I’m walking around?” I suggested. “Catch one sleeping in a tree somewhere?”
She laughed. “You could be staring straight at a kakapo and not see it. Have you seen the photos?” she asked, gesturing to a bulletin board pinned with images. A dignified old gentleman of a parrot looked back at me, eyes spectacled with a disc of tiny feathers, his mottled bright green cloak a perfect match for the forest floor on which he stood. The bird seemed an artifact of a gentler era, gone the way of the top hat and the calling card: a kakapo—not only the world’s largest parrot but also the only nocturnal one, and the only parrot that does not fly. Once a king of the South Pacific, with numbers in the tens of thousands, the species now consists of a mere 131 specimens on heavily protected island preserves.
Now I was about to leave my wife in the middle of our two-month honeymoon to spend 10 days carrying a heavy pack around a remote island in the Tasman Sea working for the benefit of a rare, beautiful parrot that I would never get to see? What was I thinking?
I’m not much of a birder, but I’ve always been a softy for sad-sack animals like my cat, a rescue who falls off every surface because she was declawed late in life. Plus, this was a chance to experience New Zealand nature as close to its untrammeled state as possible.
The kakapo, once believed extinct, is making a comeback—with significant help from humans. This is only fair, since the birds wouldn’t be in this predicament if it weren’t for us: The Maori, who arrived in New Zealand in the 1200s, brought predatory rats and hunted the birds for their feathers and flavor; and the Europeans, who showed up in the 1800s, carried stoats (ermine) and cats that further annihilated the population. The rangers and scientists of the Kakapo Recovery program are slowly but surely succeeding in their mission to “make more kakapo” by micromanaging the birds’ diet, mating, births, and fledging (preparing to leave the nest)—an obsessive project that requires volunteer support. Lots of it.
Which is how I found myself in the Whenua Hou (fen-ooh-ah HO) Nature Reserve in the late New Zealand spring, tripping over roots and slipping down steep, muddy slopes as I tried to keep pace with Errol Nye, the preserve’s head ranger, and Doug Barlow, my Kiwi co-volunteer. As Errol wriggled around tree trunks and bounced off rocks, his legs appeared to be made of rubber; Doug, a hearty Southlander, ran triathlons in his spare time. “You’ll get your trail legs soon enough,” Errol called over his shoulder as he disappeared under a fallen tree swollen with moss and ferns.
Errol was showing us our intended routine for the next week and a half. We’d wake up; measure out the birds’ food into small hoppers in the sterilized Nut Room; navigate the island’s confusing maze of trails to the feeding stations of specific birds with names like Suzanne, Ellie, and Tumeke; change out the food and water; and carefully clean the platform to protect against mold. Finally, we’d try to make it home to the island’s small complex of bunkrooms without twisting an ankle, falling in the mud, getting lost, or—as I would do on several occasions—all three.
Errol halted us at a creek bed and put a finger to his lips. “No talking through this next part,” he said, his normally breezy Australian demeanor turning serious. He started to walk again before adding, “And no stopping to stare, either.”
I followed Doug up the embankment, confused. Then, as we crested the slope, I saw beneath the uprooted trunk of a tree a white-breasted bird the size of a carry-on suitcase, flippered wings by its side, a stark streak of yellow sweeping up each side of its head to the crown like a couture model’s crazy eye shadow. As I sped by, determined not to break stride, I thought I saw beside it a gray, fuzzy mass that had a beak of its own.
“Yellow-eyed penguin. Bloody rare in its own right,” Errol said, grinning, when we were past. “Did you see the chick?” Two of only 4,000 of their kind, just chilling by the side of the trail. These surprises are a big part of what keeps volunteers coming to Codfish Island, even if they won’t see a kakapo.
New Zealand, it could be said, is for the birds—at least, it used to be. More species of flightless birds evolved here than anywhere else: the kakapo, the takahë, the weka, the extinct 12-foot-tall moa, and the endangered but much beloved national symbol, the kiwi.
In the last few decades, New Zealanders have come to regret the enthusiasm with which they once tried to shape their islands into a “better Britain” by clear-cutting forests and introducing hundreds of plants and animals that overwhelmed New Zealand’s native flora and fauna. Realizing that the battle on the main islands is likely lost, the Department of Conservation has established preserves such as Whenua Hou on New Zealand’s offshore barrier islands, seeking to turn them into microcosms of what the country once was.
And what was New Zealand like before the invasion of Homo sapiens? Judging by my experience, noisy. The kaka, another of New Zealand’s native parrots, screeched strange ululations to each other as they crawled up and down flax plants, scarlet butts sticking up in the air. The bellbirds let loose laser-gun trills, sounding like a squadron of Star Wars TIE fighters. Then there’d be the odd wood pigeon and its Wiffle-ball whistle; the “morepork” owl, whose two-tone call really did sound like a request for a second helping of pig; and the virtuoso known as the tui, whose territorial call was a dead ringer for the main theme of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. It was a symphony of ancient birdsong, played for my ears alone.
My fellow volunteer Doug and I settled into our routine fairly quickly; he more so than I. I would finish a feed-out run by lunchtime and come back to the hut feeling pretty pleased with myself, only to discover Doug standing stark still under the eaves trying to get a good photograph of the wee rifleman bird that had made its nest there. The two tons of coal that we were supposed to move that afternoon were already stacked neatly against the wall. Sometimes I would go with Doug to the beach and watch as he waddled into the ocean backwards in his fins and wetsuit, speargun in one hand, net in the other. He caught and filleted blue moki that I was only too happy to dredge in flour, egg, and bread crumbs and fry up for an appetizer. We whiled away the evenings playing darts, watching movies from a projector hooked up to Errol’s laptop, and disparaging one another’s homelands with all the deadpan wit we could muster.
“Want to go catch a bird?” Errol asked one morning as Doug and I were flitting about the hut preparing our sandwiches and gear for the day. “I’m going to show Hayley [the then-new assistant ranger] how to do a health check.” Did I want to? Does a kakapo crap in the woods? Doug and I grabbed our cameras and followed Errol and Hayley down the trail. Errol carried what looked like a television antenna in his hand, lifting it frequently to check on the bird’s location. We were searching for a kakapo named Wolf, whose territory was closest to the huts. That distinction previously belonged to the now legendary Sirocco, who became famous thanks to a BBC documentary, Last Chance to See. One clip, in which an indescribably happy Sirocco mates with the head of a zoologist while actor Stephen Fry looks on (watch it here), has been viewed on YouTube more than 3 million times. Kakapo males are pathologically randy, and Sirocco made a nuisance of himself by trying to have sex with the rangers as they walked the path to the outhouse at night. He was removed from the island and is now a star advocate for Kakapo Recovery at eco-sanctuaries and zoos throughout New Zealand.
“Quiet now, and eyes open,” Errol said. “Wolf’s a runner.” I was impressed. A runner is a rarity among kakapo, whose usual response to danger is to freeze and hope for the best. Given the kakapo’s remarkable camouflage and the fact that their only predators for thousands of years were airborne, it’s no surprise that their inbred defense mechanism is to stop moving when threatened. Nor is it shocking that stoats, who didn’t need to see the kakapo when they could smell their notoriously musty “clarinet case” odor from 50 feet away, ate them up like popcorn.
We crept through the undergrowth, supplejack vines trying to drag us down with each step, bush lawyer thorns cutting up our legs, and the beeps from Errol’s antenna growing louder by the second. “There!” Doug cried, pointing to a rustling in the brush. Errol was off, careening through low branches and leaping downed trees in a single bound. Bushwhacking after him, we found Errol on the ground, in his hands an impossibly fat parrot protesting the capture with low growls. A kakapo.
What do you do when you’re suddenly confronted with one of the rarest and, heck, cutest birds in creation? If you’re Doug and me, you stroke his soft feathers and bristly whiskers, and admire his plumage. You snap your camera constantly. You listen as Errol tells Hayley how to hold the bird by the head and feet and how to examine its cloaca for the insidious “crusty bum” infection, and you pity the poor guy as his butt is probed. Then you watch him turn invisible against the ferns the moment he is let loose.
The meeting was magical, and yet for me, something essential was wanting. Not just because I forgot to take a picture of myself with Wolf, but also because my encounter with the kakapo was staged, and shared. Why (besides the fact that they sleep during the day and are impossible to spot) did I not get to see kakapo on my daily perambulations? Wasn’t I lugging 30 pounds of supplies around the island every day for them? Couldn’t one bird be bothered to wake from its daytime slumber to say hello when I stopped in with a fresh batch of high-protein pellets? I felt like an underappreciated mother, cleaning up the mess my birds made but never seeing beak nor tail of them, never getting any thanks, not even a single feather of the sort the Maori prized so highly. It was selfish of me, of course, not to mention idiotic, to expect the kakapo to recognize our efforts on their behalf. But I wanted it nonetheless.
During my last few days on the island, the routine was broken by a visit from the island’s governing body, the Whenua Hou Committee. In the first decade of the 1800s, Codfish Island was home to a colony of European sealers working New Zealand’s southernmost waters; soon after, it became one of New Zealand’s first mixed-race communities as those sealers settled on Codfish permanently with their Maori wives. The committee is made up of descendants of that community as well as officials from the local Ngai Tahu tribe and the Department of Conservation. Together, they have the final say on what is or is not allowed on the island.
“It’s good to be home,” one heavyset, bespectacled Maori elder remarked when he arrived. The current question before the committee was whether or not to approve the use of tents around the hut during kakapo breeding season. Errol desperately needed to add beds for the dozens of volunteers that descend on Codfish to monitor each and every kakapo nest. The committee’s concern was that the tents might accidentally be set up over the bones of Maori ancestors.
So we pulled out all the stops. First, a grand welcome barbecue. Doug and I manned the grill, cooking steaks and sausages while Errol fired up his projector to show the documentary featuring Sirocco. Although the Ngai Tahu seemed generally less interested in birds than in burial grounds, the committee members were nonetheless disappointed to learn that Sirocco wouldn’t be making an appearance in the flesh. But Wolf filled in for him, growling as Errol lifted him from the catch bag to pose for photos. This time, Doug and I made sure to get ourselves into one. The next day, night, and morning, more videos, more food, a successful vote on the tents, and quickly, with handshakes and nose-presses all around, the Lords of the Island were gone. In a few days, I would be too.
By the end of my time on Codfish, the trails that had once confused and thwarted me now felt comfortable, familiar. My last day, the feed-out run took me by the penguin nest. I winked at the chick as I passed and hurried my pace when its parent hissed back. (I didn’t know penguins could hiss.) I followed the narrow, crisscrossing trails through rippling seas of ferns and vines and moss and stopped at each feeding station, flipping open the food hopper to see how the girls were getting along. Good, Tumeke was eating, as was Hoki; Ellie still hadn’t found her food. Toward the end of my run I climbed up to Suzanne’s feeding station, which stood on a narrow ridge lined with tall, spindly tree ferns. Pellet particles were everywhere, the water bowl upturned—the regular kakapo mess. I flipped open Suzanne’s hopper to find the food gone, crumbs left as usual, but something else as well: two tiny feathers, furry and soft, light as the sea air, green as the primordial forest. A
HOW TO JOIN THE KAKAPO CARETAKERS
The Kakapo Recovery program requires volunteers from December through May. Like writer Ethan Todras-Whitehill, you can help prep food and hike Codfish Island’s steep terrain to distribute seeds and pellets to the kakapo. Other volunteer positions include nest minders, who keep an eye on eggs in the bush during breeding season (late summer), and camp cooks, who prepare meals for as many as 35 staff and volunteers. You’ll likely be asked to help out with additional tasks as well, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get to see a kakapo during your stay. Volunteers pay their own way to Invercargill or Te Anau, plus $250 to cover transfers and food. Visit kakaporecovery.org.nz for more details and to register.
Illustrations by Matthew Billington. This story appeared in the November/December 2011 issue.