Kakapo (Owl Parrot) Facts – Description, Genetics, Habitat, Ecology, Behaviour and Conservation

Illustration of a kakapo from the book A History of the Birds of New Zealand by Walter Lawry Buller, published in 1873.

The Kakapo, also called owl parrot, is a mysterious species of large, nocturnal, flightless, ground-dwelling parrot of the super-family Strigopoidea, native to New Zealand.

This scarce bird is endangered with extinction by New Zealand’s imported predators, for it has lost flight power.


The Kakapo (or owl parrot) is about 20 inches (58 to 64 cm (23 to 25 in) long. Its soft feather is cryptically streaked with yellows, greens, blacks, and browns. Individuals may have wildly differing degrees of mottling and intensity and color tone – museum specimens show that some kakapo parrots had yellow coloring. Kakapo’s weight can vary from 2 to 9 lb (0.95 to 4 kg ) at maturity. Males are relatively larger than females. Twenty-eight males were found to average 4.4 lb ( 2 kg) in one study, and 39 males were found to average 4.5 lb ( 2.06 kg) in another. In the same studies, 28 females were found to average 3.3 lb (1.5 kg), and 18 females were found to average 2.8 lb (1.28 kg), respectively. Kakapo Parrots are the heaviest living species of parrot and, on average, weigh about 14 oz (400 g) more than the largest flying parrot, the hyacinth macaw.


Since Kakapo passed through a sad genetic bottleneck, in which evolution reduced their world population to 49 birds, they are incredibly inbred and have a low genetic difference. This manifests infertility problems and lower disease resistance: nearly 40% of kakapo eggs are infertile.


Before the humans’ arrival, the Kakapo was distributed throughout both principal islands of New Zealand. Although it may have occupied Stewart Island before human appearance, it has not been found in the widespread fossil collections from there (until now). Kakapo lived in a diversity of habitats, including scrublands, tussock lands, and also coastal areas. It also occupied forests dominated by podocarps (matai, rimu, totara, kahikatea), Tawa, beeches, and rata. In west Fiordland, areas of slip debris and avalanche with restoring and profoundly fruiting vegetation – such as five fingers, bush lawyer, wineberry, hebes, tutu, and coprosmas – became recognized as “kakapo gardens.”

Ecology and behaviour

It appears that the Kakapo – like many of New Zealand’s native bird species – has evolved to occupy an environmental niche usually filled by various mammal species.

The Kakapo is principally nocturnal; it roosts under the tree cover or on the earth during the day and moves around its regions at night.

Though the Kakapo cannot fly, it is an excellent climber, rising to the tallest trees’ crowns. It can also “free fall” – dropping by leaping and brilliantly spreading its wings. In this way, it may move a few meters at an angle of under 45 degrees. With only 3.3% of its mass made up of the essential pectoral muscle, it is no surprise that the Kakapo cannot use its delicate wings to lift its heavy body off the earth. Because of its sad flightlessness, it has shallow metabolic demands in comparison to other flighted birds. It can survive easily on very little or on very low-quality food sources. Unlike most bird species, the Kakapo is completely herbivorous, feeding on seeds, fruits, stems, leaves, and rhizomes. When searching for food, Kakapo tends to leave crescent-shaped fiber wads in the nature behind them, also called “browse signs.”

Having lost the flying skill, it has evolved strong legs. Locomotion is often a fast “jog-like” gait by the way it can move a few miles. A female has been seen making two return trips each night during nesting from her nest to a food source up to 0.6 mi ( 1 km ) away, and the male may walk from its home range to a mating arena up to 3 mi (5 km) away during the mating season (September to January).


Fossil records show that in pre-Polynesian times, the Kakapo was New Zealand’s second most common bird, and it was extensive on all three principal islands. However, New Zealand’s kakapo population has decreased massively since the nation’s human settlement. Its conservation status as classified by the Department of Conservation continues to be “Nationally Critical.” Since the mid-1890s, conservation efforts have been profoundly made to prevent complete extinction.

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