“This bird was no doubt common at one time all over Westland, but now it is confined to the country south of Bruce Bay", says Douglas writing in the 19th century. "The last bird found north, was somewhere about the Mikonui River near Ross, and that was many years ago. Since then, I have not heard of any more having been found and have never got a trace of them outside the mountain birch country which extends from the Maitahi river to the Holyford, and up the Landsbro river to its source.
“At one time the Kakapo swarmed in that birch country from the sea beach to the snow line, and in two instances I have caught them on a snowfield, as if they were trying to cross the Divide. They may manage in some cases to get over, but no doubt the ferrets have finished them long ago, as they are fast doing on the Western side.
“The early explorers in Westland were often puzzled, when going up a narrow bush spur to find a beaten track as if sheep or some other animals, had been travelling up and down for years. Almost every well defined spur in the country that led to the grass line had those mysterious tracks. Various theories were promulgated. It was the moa. It was wild sheep or goats, that had by some means strayed over the range, or it was some animal unknown to science, perhaps the typo (Taipo or Devil) or the mysterious beaver. No one at first suspected it was the Kakapo, although any of the Bruce Bay Maoris could have told them. The tracks were made by that bird travelling up to the high grass country. The rounded dust holes, here and there on the spurs, might have told them it was a bird of no great size and one who had occasionally to shake fleas out of his feathers.
“Before the advent of the white man with dogs, almost the only way the Maoris had of catching the Kakapo was on these tracks, sitting down along side of one in the night time. The birds could be heard, coming along snarling and squealing as is their wont. When the Maori knew that the bird was close, he suddenly flashed a light with a torch, the bird stopped and glared in amazement and so was easily caught. At other times they could be caught in the moonlight, when on the low scrub, by simply shaking the tree or bush till they tumbled on the ground, something like shaking down apples. I have seen as many as half a dozen Kakapos knocked off one tutu bush this way.
“Although so formidable looking, the Kakapo appears to have little idea as to how to defend itself against dogs, ferrets or men. If a dog puts its nose, or you put your finger into the claws or beak, you will both know it, and be more careful in future. If the bird only knew its powers, it wouldn’t fall such an easy prey to stoats and ferrets. One grasp of his powerful claws would crush either of those animals, but he has no idea of attack or defence.
“That they can fight to the death among themselves I once had a good illustration, having brought to camp five live Kakapos, intending to send them to town. When in the bag carrying, they were quiet enough. So they were, when tumbled into a bush cage, but when it got fairly dark war commenced, and for hours it was pandemonium with their cries, yells and oaths. On overhauling the cage next morning, only one was alive. The rest were scalped and almost featherless, the survivor was marching triumphantly over the slain, but he had not escaped scathless. He had lost one eye and part of his scalp, and looked a most disreputable object. It is probably they fought so desperately, because they couldn’t get away; no doubt each blamed the other for getting them in the lock up. I have seen and heard Kakapos fighting in the wilds. They make noise enough, and leave feathers behind, but I have never found a dead one or even one much injured.
“To know what it is like to be in good Kakapo country before the advent of the ferret and stoat, one had to go to the flats of Landsbro, or the Thomas range. The birds used to be in dozens round the camp, screeching and yelling like a lot of demons, and at times it was impossible to sleep for the noise. The dog had to be tied up or matters would have been worse. It would have been killing and fetching all night long, but alas this is a thing of the past, when last up at the Landsbro, there wasn’t a bird to be found unless by going up on the high spurs.
“Dogs are very fond of Kakapo hunting, not alone for the fun, but because they are good eating. Few dogs will eat a Weka, a Kea, or a Kiwi, but I never saw one that refused a Kakapo. Although such a large bird, there is not very much eating on them. The head, legs and crop making up most of the bird. The quantity of food they can stow away into their crops is wonderful. Just when returning home at daylight, they are swelled out with provisions. This they chew at leisure, spitting out when masticated, whether this could be called chewing the cud, I leave to others to decide.
“There are said to be two varieties of Kakapos. The mountain variety, which is larger and lighter in colour, and the lowland variety which is smaller and has more green in its plumage. This I don’t believe, and am certain they are the same bird. The larger, which are probably the older ones keep to the high grass on the hills, leaving the younger ones which are smaller and darker in plumage to the low country where the feed is softer.
“There is no doubt that at present the Kakapo is a ground owl, and strictly vegetarian in habits. Whether it will get demoralised and become a flying carniveron, remains yet to be seen. Whether it is a bird in a transition state, developing into a flying owl, or whether he will finally degenerate into a kind of feathered mole remains also to be seen, that is if he survives long enough in the country to undergo a change, which is not very likely. He is, I doubt, doomed to extinction long before the Kiwi and the Roa are a thing of the past.
“He is certainly a strange bird. His tail is always dirty and draggled, and not of the slightest use to him. It is very seldom a complete tail can be got, there are always some feathers half broken off. This looks either that he once could fly, but intends to do so no longer, as it is of no further use, or that he is getting his tail gradually ready for flying when his breast bone expands a little more.
“The Kakapo has certainly some powers of flight, but it is only a sailing from tree to another, always alighting lower than where it started, and often miscalculates the distance and tumbles down ignominiously like a bird that had been shot. What distance they can fly or sail I can’t say, the furthest I ever saw one go was across an open creek bed a distance of over a chain, but he landed very much lower than where he started.
“The bird is afflicted with one complaint, probably caused by his vegetarian diet, at least I never saw it in any other: the complaint is tape worm, at least it looks like the same beast I have seen in bottles in quack doctors windows. The worm is found both in the crop and stomach. They are generally small, but in one instance I got one nearly six foot long. A bird that has tapeworm can at once be known, it is a skeleton. In its healthy state, the bird is mostly always fat, the fatter it is, the less chance there is of eating one with any of those objectionable insects in them.
“Kakapos are very good eating, whether old or young, but the old ones are too tough to roast, so the best way is to boil them over a slow fire for four or five hours, or cooking them in a Maori oven which is by far the quickest and best plan”.
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»»» Song of Kakapo
Other common names: —
63 cm., male 2.5 kg., female 2 kg., moss green above, greenish yellow below, mottled with fine brown and yellow bars, owl-like facial disk.
Where to find: —
Probably the only real opportunity to see a Kakapo is as a Department of Conservation volunteer, although one of the 86 remaining flightless parrots will be taken from his Codfish Island home to Ulva Island for selected visitors to view from late August, 2006. Both islands are close to Stewart Island.
The Owl is silent, dark, and still
And so, out in the ancient countries—
How strange they seem, those old far lying countries—
They hold him bird of wisdom and of will.
They never saw the Kakapo,
That, like the squirrel, laughs at winter.
Now has an owl the sense to laugh at winter?
Our bird is thrifty - they, what do they know?
And if their owls are then so wise,
Have they been known to meet in conclave?
Our Kakapos hold high and secret conclave,
And summon parliaments if need arise?
Oh, they may keep their haughty little Owl.
Our bird is sweet to little children,
Friendly, and frank, and clumsy, like the children,
What friendship is there in an owl?
Then live, oh live, old tumbling Kakapo,
Our mossy roots are yours, are yours forever,
Our trees, our bush, our banks are yours forever,
Live on and leave us not, O Kakapo!
— Eileen Duggan
Illustration description: —
Gould, John, Birds of Australia, 1840-48.
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1873.
Douglas, Charles Edward, Birds of South Westland, c.1899.
Pascoe, John, Mr Explorer Douglas, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1957.
Page date & version: —
Saturday, 9 October, 2010; ver2009v1