The kakapo is an unusual bird. The world's largest parrot was common throughout its native New Zealand until predators hunted it to the brink of extinction. Now the stocky green-and-yellow bird is critically endangered, and it's the focus of a considerable conservation effort from the New Zealand Department of Conservation's Kakapo Recovery program. There are currently 147 known adult birds, each named and extensively monitored.
From its funky facial hair to its elaborate courtship rituals, the kakapo is certainly special. Here are a dozen strange facts about this unique bird.
This bird doesn't really look like a parrot.
The kakapo looks more like an owl. It has a whisker-y face that looks as if it's sporting muttonchops or sideburns.
It's a nocturnal loner.
Its name means "night parrot" in Maori, and it prefers solo nighttime walkabouts. Kakapo Recovery calls the parrot a "midnight rambler" due to its penchant for sleeping all day and wandering through the forest alone at night. These birds typically tuck themselves into a tree alone during the day and head out as a party of one in the evenings to find food. They look for company only when it's time to breed.
Every kakapo has a name.
Because there are so few birds, all kakapo have names. They are named by members of the Kakapo Recovery program. Older birds were typically given English language names like Boomer, Flossie and Ruth. More recent chicks have Maori names such as Ra, Ruapuke and Taeatanga. Some birds have been named for people who are involved in conservation efforts. For example, Attenborough was named in honor of conservationist Sir David Attenborough.
Kakapo are single mothers.
After the breeding business is over, males abandon the females to let them raise their chicks alone. The female usually lays one to four eggs. She has to leave the newborn chicks alone at night while she goes to look for food. Typically, the chicks leave the nest after about 10 weeks, but often a mother will continue to feed them until they reach 6 months old.
They don't rush relationships.
Kakapo "live life in the slow lane," according to Kakapo Recovery. Males don't start breeding until they are about 4 years old and females don't start until they are about 6 years old. Even then, breeding doesn't take place every year. It typically happens every two to four years and seems to be dependent on the availability of food supplies.
Courtship is serious business.
Or at least it's loud. During breeding season, males go up to prominent rocks or hilltops, inflate like a balloon and emit a sonic boom-like noise. This "boom" announces to all interested females they're ready to mate. After 20 to 30 booms, they make a "ching" — a high-pitched metallic call. This pinpoints a male's position so a female can find him. This boom-ching pattern can go on continuously for up to eight hours every night for two to three months.
It makes some unusual noises.
Boom-chings aside, the kakapo squawks like a typical parrot, but it has a more varied vocabulary. Some of its other noises sound like a donkey's bray or a pig's squeal.
They freeze when noticed.
Probably not the most successful mode of defense, but when a kakapo is disturbed or frightened, it keeps absolutely still and hopes it won't get noticed. The kakapo likely developed this behavior when most of New Zealand's predators were birds and freezing might have worked.
It smells like an attic.
Biologist Jim Briskie of Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand, told National Geographic that kakaopo smell like "musty violin cases." Unfortunately, the distinctive smell makes it easier for predators to find them.
When it comes to birds, kakapo are at the top of their weight class. Adult males average more than four pounds, and they are about two feet long.
Kakapo can't fly.
Although this parrot has large wings, it doesn't use them for locomotion. Instead, this agile climber and jumper uses them to keep its balance and slow it down when leaping from high places.
The kakapo is long-lived.
The kakapo lives an average of 58 years and may live as long as 90 years.
Some kakapo can be friendly.
Researchers who work with the birds notice they each have their own personality. Many are curious and enjoy interacting with humans. In one BBC special, a hand-raised kakapo named Sirocco gained international fame after trying to mate with zoologist Mark Carwardine's head. Sirocco is now the spokes-bird for New Zealand conservation. Although Carwardine maybe didn't think so at the time, the video is incredibly entertaining:
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in April 2016.