By Tracy Brighten
Stephen Fry and social media launched this rare parrot to stardom, and now this tech-savvy bird is putting fame to good use.
Back in 2009, Stephen Fry visited New Zealand’s Codfish Island with zoologist Mark Carwardine to film BBC2’s Last Chance to See, a documentary about animals on the edge of extinction.
Now, with almost 6.5 million views of ‘Shagged by a rare parrot’ on YouTube, their encounter with Sirocco, the flightless parrot, has achieved phenomenal worldwide coverage. Not bad for a species that previously wasn’t well-known even in New Zealand, despite its international critically endangered status.
He shares photographs, video clips and news on New Zealand’s wildlife, as well as events you can get involved in. Sirocco’s cheeky character is reflected in his Facebook posts. Yes, it is humanising him, but this approach connects people with nature; it engages and informs them, especially young people who will be responsible for continuing the protection of our wildlife.
We all enjoy a story and Sirocco certainly has a heart-warming story.
Born on March 23rd 1997 on Codfish Island, Sirocco became the first male kakapo to be hand-raised, after a respiratory illness at three weeks old meant he needed special care. In late November that year, he was released to roam the island and survive on his own. It was soon clear that Sirocco had been imprinted on humans as a result of close contact with people rather than kakapo. Although it wasn’t intended, this bond with people was to mark him out for a special role.
The kakapo is a nocturnal bird, the heaviest parrot in the world, which can live to a ripe old age of 60+. Its moss green feathers allow it to blend in with its habitat, providing its main form of defence.
A herbivore that eats fruit, roots and leaves, the kakapo can no longer fly, having evolved to a ground nesting bird in the absence of predators. It can still climb trees, but this wasn’t enough to survive on mainland New Zealand where kakapo disappeared.
Early Polynesian settlers hunted the parrot for meat and plumage, and European settlers destroyed habitat to clear bush for farming, in addition to hunting the bird. The biggest threat came from introduced predators – rats, cats, and stoats. Before the arrival of Europeans, the kakapo’s only predator was the giant eagle, so it developed ground nesting habits for survival. However, this made eggs and chicks an easy target for introduced mammals.
The kakapo’s unusual mating habits involve digging a bowl in the earth in summer and then making loud booming sounds over a three month period to attract a mate. The low-volume call can travel several kilometres. It’s an exhausting business, especially when there aren’t many females left to go round, and older males often go unheard. Although he remains a wild bird, Sirocco hasn’t enjoyed any mating success, despite his tireless booming efforts shown in the award-winning wildlife documentary From Dud To Stud.
However, his overnight rise to stardom on the back of Stephen Fry has given him the very important role of ambassador. In 2010, Prime Minister John Key appointed Sirocco as New Zealand’s spokesbird for conservation and he’s doing a great job that some politicians could learn from.
Sirocco is highlighting the plight of endangered species. His charisma should bring more funds to conservation and secure his species and others for future generations.
In 2011, like all superstars, Sirocco began touring New Zealand with appearances at the Orokonui Ecosanctaury and Wellington’s Zealandia, where 200 people had pre-booked tickets. Sirocco’s health and welfare is paramount with strict rules on how he is fed, handled and housed.
Sirocco is an annual visitor to Zealandia, the 225 hectare fully fenced eco sanctuary. His visits create much excitement and offer the public the chance to see a very special and rare parrot endemic to New Zealand.
Social media has such power to educate and enlighten, and Sirocco’s public relations is an example of how it can be used to spread the word and help protect our planet.
Television is another powerful medium, and the story of American girl Natalie Shaheen is a humbling one. Natalie fell in love with kakapo when she saw a TV documentary aged eight. So when she turned 13, she asked for donations instead of gifts for her coming-of-age, generously donating $3,400 to the Kakapo Recovery program.
In 1990 there were only 46 Kakapo left in the world, and now there are 125 thanks to the recovery program.
Colonies are managed by a small team of dedicated conservationists in remote predator-free island habitats. Codfish Island is a rimu forest habitat similar to the kakapo’s original Stewart Island habitat. The suitability of Codfish Island was demonstrated by the phenomenal breeding event of 2002, when the kakapo population was boosted with 24 chicks in a few months, and again in 2009 when 33 chicks hatched.
But it’s a slow recovery with breeding only occurring every 2-4 years. There are indications of rimu and beech seed masts that will trigger breeding this summer, which will help soften the blow of the recent death of Ellie at only 16 years old.
There are two other kakapo habitats – Anchor Island in Fiordland National Park with beech and rimu forest and Little Barrier Island near Auckland. Kakapo were introduced here in 2012 to see if they could establish without supplementary food now that rats have been eradicated, and feral cats removed in the 70s. Codfish and Little Barrier Island are out of swimming range of mainland rats and offer long term survival prospects for kakapo.
Recent exciting news suggests that next year, New Zealand scientists will be able to collect and freeze kakapo sperm to help with breeding programs and genetic diversity, providing a breakthrough in kakapo species recovery. For years, they’ve been working on insemination programs through trial and error, but with only one success in 2009. Collecting and inseminating kakapo sperm is difficult enough, and freezing sperm would increase the chance of fertilisation success.
Sirocco is certainly putting social media to good use by spreading the word about wildlife conservation. Let’s give Sirocco and the Kakapo Recovery team our support and help to change the world.
Post update April 15th 2016.
A record breeding season has just come to a close as the last egg hatched on April 8th. So far, 38 chicks have survived, but the next six months will be crucial before the new chicks can be counted as additions to the population of 123 adult birds. In a press release, New Zealand Conservation Minister Maggie Barry underlines the importance of the Kakapo Recovery team to the parrot’s long term survival.
“New Zealand owes the rangers and volunteers who have worked tirelessly through the season to date a vote of thanks. They are giving this special bird species the best possible chance of survival.”
Published on The News Hub July 21, 2015
Sirocco by Chris Birmingham (DoC) on Flickr/Creative Commons
Sirocco checks Facebook by DoC on Flickr/Creative Commons
Sirocco at 14 days by Don Merton on Flickr/Creative Commons
Sirocco munching manuka by Chris Birmingham on Flickr/Creative Commons
Kakapo chicks by Mike Bodie (DoC) on Flickr/ Creative Commons
Sirocco full length portait by Mike Bodie on Flickr/Creative Commons
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