Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus)

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Matt Lowe, Collections Manager at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

Ten years ago, when I started my Museum career in Manchester Museum, I arrived at my desk one morning to find a friendly feathery green face staring at me. Bemused at what this strange taxidermied creature was I decided to do a little research.

What I was looking at was the world’s largest parrot, the Kakapo, also known as the Night Parrot. Flightless, bright green – almost embarassingly so – and native to New Zealand, the Kakapo is also one of the most endangered creatures on Earth. However, in its own way it has become a symbol of hope that, despite the damage we have done to our fellow inhabitants of this world, we are capable of change.

The Kakapo has suffered indirectly from human colonisation of New Zealand. Before humans arrived the only mammals in New Zealand were bats, but with our arrival came predatory mammals, especially cats and stoats. The Kakapo had evolved in an environment where it could afford to lose the ability to fly from danger, something which now made it extremely vulnerable.

Back in te 1830s another bird, the Great Auk, was thought to be extinct. The northern hemisphere’s equivalent of a penguin, the Great Auk had been found off the coast of Newfoundland, Iceland and even Scotland, but had been hunted to extinction – or so it was thought. In 1835 the world was given a second chance when a colony of nearly 50 Auks was discovered on a small island off the coast of Iceland. You would have thought that this would have been seen as a chance to preserve the species, but this was not to be. By 1844 the last Great Auk had been killed for, of all things, a collector of bird skins.

Some 130 years later and the world was beginning to think that the Kakapo too had been lost. But in 1977 an expedition to Stewart Island off the coast of New Zealand found a small population clinging on and at imminent risk of extinction by invasive cats. Instead of repeating the mistakes made with the Great Auk, some 65 birds were evacuated to predator-free islands. Since then a recovery programme has managed to increase the world’s Kakapo population to 124.

This may seem too few, and it is – Kakapo were once widespread across the whole of New Zealand – but they are difficult to breed. The good news is that through dedicated research, and the fact that Kakapo are very long lived (up to 80 years!) the numbers are slowly rising and plans are being made to expand their range in the future. Every six months or so I look up the Kakapo Recovery Programme and it’s been a delight to see the numbers slowly creep up over the last ten years.

The Museum has nine Kakapo skins and various bones, most of which came to the Museum at the end of the 19th Century. The Kakapo most visitors will have encountered is on display on the mezzanine level of the Museum and was donated by Baron von Hügel, the first Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology across the road.

So why is it one of my favourite animals in the Museum collection? Because it reminds me that the world has an almost limitless capacity to surprise. How was it that I had never heard of this slightly comical-looking, flightless, rotund but wonderful parrot? And what else will I discover and learn about the Museum’s collections?

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