Rose-ringed parakeet
Rose-ringed parakeet

Immunizing New Zealand’s 83 remaining kakapo from a deadly bug that killed three young kakapo chicks should help put the flightless New Zealand parrots back on the road to recovery, conservationists hope.

We feel that, hopefully, the worst is over. We are all keeping fingers crossed, “says Clare Miller of DOC’s Kakapo Recovery team.

In July, twenty birds were moved from Whenua Hou, an island stronghold of the kakapo right at the bottom of New Zealand, to The Kakahu Island in Fiordland. Twelve birds went the other way.

The aim of the move was to improve the chances of more frequent breeding for kakapo, by exposing young kakapo to a beech forest habitat on the Kakahu Island and at the same time, to bring the breeding birds back to Whenua Hou in preparation for the prolific production of rimu seed — a known trigger for kakapo breeding — expected in 2006.

But just after the transfer three young female chicks fell ill and died from a bug later identified as erysipelas. The bug is believed to have come from seabirds. “We have tested quite a few seabirds on Whenua Hou now and a high proportion have had the disease so it looks like [the disease has] probably been on the island for quite a while and maybe the birds have had it before and we haven’t picked it up because we weren’t looking for it,” says Miller.

The birds that died were young, having been born in 2002, and DOC thinks the stress of the transfer combined with the bug to kill them. “We’ve only ever transferred adults before and it could be that they are more robust,” says Miller.

As well as killing the young kakapo, the disease may have been suppressing fertility in the older birds, DOC suspects, but this is something the DOC staff won’t know until the next breeding season in summer.

Since the deaths, DOC has swung into action with a vaccine against erysipelas to immunize the remaining 83 kakapo. All the birds on Whenua Hou have been fully inoculated and those on the Kakahu are in the process of having booster shots.

At the same time, DOC is undertaking its annual task of recharging the radio transmitters that each bird carries on its back. “They run on batteries. It’s quite a small sealed package. We put it in a harness and it goes on their back,” explains Clare Miller. “We make a harness out of soft cord and that goes around their wings, so it’s like a little backpack, and the transmitter sits in the middle of their back and it’s covered up in the feathers.”

The radio transmitters are necessary — each bird its own radio frequency — to find the solitary birds, who each like to have about 20 hectares of island to roam around.

The radio transmitters are necessary — each bird its own radio frequency — to find the solitary birds, who each like to have about 20 hectares of island to roam around.

 

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