Friends, I believe I have been terrifying you long enough with creepy lizard-worm-things and jellyfish and whatnot. It is time that I bring you a featured creature which is cute and cuddly and won’t try to bite your face off or use you as a host for its offspring. That’s why I want to tell you about the Kakapo.
First off, you should know that in the title of this post, I’m using “killer” in the same manner as “wicked” or “brilliant,” or whatever it is the kids are saying these days. Unlike some of our other featured creatures, the Kakapo is not out to destroy you and your whole family. It is not literally a killer. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: it’s a large, fluffy, vaguely friendly flightless bird. It’s a vegetarian (which is a nice change of pace after the Vampire Finch), and it has a distinctive style of eating in which it uses its beak (which is excellent for grinding things) to strip all the delicious edible parts out of a plant, leaving behind a neat little ball of indigestible fiber like an arts and crafts project.
It’s an incredible fact of island biogeography that species that evolve in limited habitats with limited predators tend to develop some wild specializations to suit their environments. Darwin saw it in the Galapagos, Wallace saw it in the Malay archipelago, and it’s pretty much a feature of islands everywhere, even the really big ones like Australia. As David Quammen put it, “Isolation plus time yields divergence.” (If you have any interest in biology, I highly recommend Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, which is an absolutely fascinating read on the subject of island biogeography. And it’s totally not as boring as that makes it sound… it’s an incredible book and one of my all-time favorites, and perfectly accessible if you don’t know the first thing about biology.)
The Kakapo lives in New Zealand, and like many island birds that didn’t really have many predatory land mammals to deal with, it long ago traded its not-very-useful power of flight for a life on the ground. It is the only flightless parrot in the world, and perhaps as a result (too many Cheetos?) is also the heaviest parrot in the world, weighing in at up to eight pounds. It makes up for the lack of flight with strong legs and an ambling ground-covering trot, plus it’s able to handily scale trees and “parachute” from heights using its wings to slow its descent. Like other parrots, it’s long-lived — up to 120 years. When the youngsters are play-fighting, they win by locking their chins over the other bird’s neck, like that annoying cousin who always gets you in a headlock and then gives you noogies. Much like sage grouse, they have a booming mating call and construct leks during breeding season (little dish-shaped indentations in the ground) to help amplify their calls. (Next, they will learn to break guitars and trash hotel rooms.)
They have a luxuriously soft feather-pelt because they don’t need stiff flight feathers. Around their beaks they have little whiskers that help them feel along the ground when they’re looking for snacks and shenanigans. In short, they look very very cuddleable.
Of course, also like other flightless birds, the Kakapo was pretty much screwed when humans showed up. Aside from hunting the Kakapo for its delicious rotundness, they also introduced predators like cats, rats and dogs. The Kakapo had adapted to predatory raptors, which are daytime hunters, by becoming nocturnal and learning to freeze and take advantage of its foliage-colored feathers. When night-hunting mammals were introduced, the Kakapo population was decimated. It was down into the double digits for awhile there. But thanks to a rather novel form of population recovery plan, New Zealand’s Kakapos have been relocated to even more isolated islands off the New Zealand coast, which are predator-free zones (after they exterminated — sometimes repeatedly — the rat and weka populations) and where the Kakapo’s numbers are very slowly recovering (its rates of reproduction are among the lowest of any bird species).
So you must be thinking to yourselves that this is all very interesting and whatnot, but beyond everything I’ve mentioned here, what exactly makes the Kakapo so special? Why do I love them so? Well, I will tell you why. It’s because of that one time when a Kakapo shagged Mark Carwardine’s head while Stephen Fry stood by, laughing his ass off.