This large, charismatic parrot blends perfectly into the background of the native New Zealand vegetation. The plumage on its back is moss green with black barring, whilst its underparts are more yellowy green. All the feathers are mottled brown and yellow ensuring it is camouflaged against the forest surroundings. This cryptic colouration may have evolved because of predation from the giant, now extinct Haast’s eagle; if alarmed, the kakapo freezes, its green-yellow feathers rendering it almost invisible amongst the foliage. The Kakapo has a distinctive owl-like facial disc made up of light yellow to brown hair-like feathers. Its eyes are dark brown and its short, broad bill is a light blue-grey colour. The wings are short, as is the tail, whilst the legs are large and muscular.
Females are smaller than males with a narrower head, proportionately longer bill and tail, and pinker legs and feet. Their weight is typically about 65% that of the males. Males can weigh up to as much as 3.6kg meaning they are the world’s heaviest parrot. The body mass of both sexes fluctuates throughout the year, due to storage and mobilisation of fat reserves. An increase of between 60-100% bodyweight is gained in preparation for the breeding season. This magnitude of weight gain is greater than that of any other terrestrial bird.
Kakapo are well known for the male’s ‘booming’ call, which he repeats during the night in the breeding season, to attract a female. At such a low wavelength, these foghorn-like notes can be heard as far as 5km away. Although generally a quiet bird, both sexes sometimes make repeated, high-pitched noises (sounding like ‘skraark), which become more frequent in the breeding season. During territorial confrontations, the birds will squeal, screech and grunt. The bird also gives off a very distinctive sweet odour, which unfortunately has made it more vulnerable to mammalian predators.
The Maori name, ‘Kakapo’ means ‘night parrot’ reflecting the bird’s nocturnal behaviour. The Kakapo is flightless and runs through the forest on its strong, muscular legs. The species is surprisingly adept at climbing, hauling its great weight up trees using a powerful beak and by flapping its short wings can jump to the ground from as high as 15 metres without injury. These herbivorous birds forage in the tree tops for fruit and on the ground for the leaves, roots, bark and seeds from a number of native plant species. This varied diet enables them to inhabit a variety of habitat types. With a mean lifespan of 90 years (in the absence of predators), they are the world’s longest living bird as well as exhibiting the lowest energy expenditure of any bird.
The kakapo is the only parrot known to form "leks", breeding territories where males attract females for mating. Males will dig a shallow bowl in the earth to lie in; these bowls help amplify the famous "booming" call, which can be heard up to 5 km away. Females produce one to two eggs and feed the chicks for up to six months after hatching. Breeding only occurs in years where there is a heavy supply of fruit ("mast" years), and thus clutches are only laid every three to five years, making for a very slow breeding cycle.
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