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Kea, Kaka, Kakapo

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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New Zealand is home to several highly peculiar endemic parrots, with three similar-looking species being of particular interest: the Kakapo Strigops habroptila, Kea Nestor notabilis, and Kaka N. meridionalis. Here are taxiderm specimens of all three on display together (with other New Zealand endemic birds*) at Bexhill Museum, Bexhill, East Sussex. I can’t pretend to have seen all three in life.

A case of stuffed birds, all from New Zealand, on display at Bexhill Museum, East Sussex (UK). Photo by Darren Naish.

* A massive sense of smug satisfaction to whoever can identify all 16 species shown here.

I’ve written about the Kakapo before (see links below), but not about Kea and Kaka. Of the three, the Kakapo is the most extraordinary, and indeed it’s one of the most extraordinary of parrots. It’s a giant among the group (reaching 3.6 kg) and is nocturnal, cryptically coloured, flightless, and highly specialised for a lifestyle of bulk-processing low-quality plant food. For its body size, it has a proportionally small brain when compared to other parrots (Iwaniuk et al. 2004). It’s also – uniquely among parrots – a polygynous lek-breeder. It’s restricted today to offshore islands but formerly occurred across the New Zealand mainland. Many of its anatomical details are interesting, including its vaguely owl-like facial disc (hence the name Strigops: it means ‘owl face’) and moss-like appearance to the plumage.

Taxiderm Kakapo at Bexhill Museum: this is actually a fairly small individual (note that it's not that different in size from the adjacent Kaka), so I presume that it's a juvenile. Photo by Darren Naish.

As a strongly terrestrial member of a predominantly arboreal clade, the proportions and anatomy of the Kakapo’s feet and legs are of special interest to those of us who aim to test the correlations we see between morphology and climbing abilities in birds and other maniraptorans. As always, there’s very little in the way of work on this sort of thing. However, we do know that the Kakapo’s hindlimb proportions are unusual compared to those of other parrots: its femora are especially long and its tarsometatarsi are especially short (Livezey 2005). In its feet, the penultimate phalanges are comparatively short, whereas they are typically long in parrots (Hopson 2001: appendix). This is exactly what we’d predict for a bird that mostly walks on the ground. The Kakapo can, however, still climb trees.

Changes in the global Kakapo population seen since the 1970s (though note that there is some uncertainty over the precise figures pertaining to the earlier years shown here). Red arrows show breeding years. Image by KimvdLinde, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Kea in flight, showing reddish on underwing. Image by klaasmer, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

A dedicated conservation effort involving captive breeding and supplementary feeding has allowed Kakapo to slowly build their numbers. The last time I wrote about Kakapo (January 2009) there were 90 individuals worldwide. As of February 2012, the number was 126 (graph above by KimvdLinde). Whenever Kakapo are mentioned these days, the first thing people seem to mention is the scene from Last Chance to See where a Kakapo raised by humans takes a particular liking to Mark Carwardine and proceeds to mate with his head. You can find that clip online if you search for it (I won’t add it here, since I struggle to get our blogging platform to embed video clips).

Kea are famous for being playful, intelligent and destructive, and I’m sure you’ve seen photos of them sliding down snowy slopes, destroying windscreen wipers on cars, raiding picnic tables and that sort of thing [image of flying Kea above by klaasmer]. A captive Kea once bit through the strap attached to my camera. Today, Kea are mostly regarded as mountain-dwelling parrots, restricted to South Island but with occasional vagrants reported from North Island. However, they do still occur in some lowland forests; indeed, fossils show that they were previously common in the lowland forests and shrublands of the east (Worthy & Holdaway 2002). They’re known to indulge in at least some nocturnal behaviour and some authors describe them as semi-nocturnal.

A sheep apparently killed by kea in the Mount Algidus region, from a 1907 account. Image in public domain.

Their notorious habit of latching on to sheep and then biting into the soft tissues of the back (thereby resulting in blood loss and/or infection and eventual death for the sheep) may – suggested Worthy & Holdaway (2002) – be the modern incarnation of a more ancient bit of natural behaviour. Kea fossils are found in association with moa and the extinct goose Cnemiornis that apparently died after becoming mired in swamps, and the bones of some of these birds exhibit damage that could have been caused by Kea beaks. Maybe Kea learnt to take advantage of mired birds by biting into their backs, and later transferred this behaviour to large domestic mammals (Worthy & Holdaway 2002).

The Kaka is the least well known of these New Zealand parrots (remember that, compared to the majority of reptiles, amphibians and non-tetrapods, all birds are extremely well known… by which I mean that they’re familiar to the public, well studied, and easy to source information on). It’s a brownish parrot with a pale cap, reddish collar on the back of its neck and reddish underparts. South Island is home to the subspecies N. m. meridionalis; North Island to the smaller, duller N. m. septentrionalis (in which the cap is less prominent). Again, they are often active at night.

Taxiderm specimen of South Island kaka at Bexhill Museum; photo by Darren Naish.

John G. Keulemans's image of the Norfolk Island kaka: the bird at top is the famous individual afflicted with a bill deformity. Image in the public domain.

Another Kaka taxon, the Norfolk Island or Long-billed kaka N. productus (regarded as a ‘subspecies’ by some authors, and hence named N. m. productus), is now extinct, the last specimen dying in London in 1851 or thereabouts. It possessed a particularly long and strongly curved upper mandible and several freak individuals with remarkably ‘over-curved’ jaws were recorded. Very little is known of its behaviour in the wild but some sources say that it spent a lot of time on the ground. What seems to be an additional (as yet unnamed) kaka species is known from bones found on the Chatham Islands. The population here seems to have become extinct within the last 150 years or so.

Several features of these parrots make them unusual and interesting compared to the members of other lineages. It used to be intimated that New Zealand was a predator-free environment where birds evolved flightlessness and unusual body shapes and lifestyles due to an absence of the selective pressures created by predation. If that were so, the nocturnal habits of these birds and their cryptic patterning and colouration seem incongruous (though note that birds are sometimes nocturnal because they can be, not necessarily because they’re avoiding activity in the daytime). Of course, New Zealand was actually inhabited by a giant eagle as well as by a giant harrier, an Accipiter hawk and some owls, so there are good reasons for thinking that many or all of its birds actually evolved within the context of constant danger from predation. The terrestrial mammals and large geckos that previously occurred on New Zealand might have represented additional predation threats for small vertebrates, but that’s a blatant speculation on my part.

Taxiderm Kea at Bexhill Museum, photo by Darren Naish.

These parrots are also unusual in exhibiting fairly obvious sexual dimorphism: males are definitely bigger than females in Kakapo and Kea, and male Kea have weakly curved bills relative to females (Bond et al. 1991). It has been suggested that island-dwelling birds exhibit more sexual dimorphism than ones on big landmasses: one hypothesis is that the smaller land area means that the sexes are more likely to be in competition due to a smaller resource base (and hence need to evolve in different directions to avoid competition); another is that a lower number of competitors allows members of a single species to diversify to fill niches that – in the more packed assemblages of continental habitats - are typically occupied by members of other species (Selander 1966).

Phylogenetic work on these parrots shows that they represent the sister-group to remaining crown-parrots (de Kloet and de Kloet 2005, Tokita et al. 2007, Wright et al. 2008, Schweizer et al. 2010), though note that some of these studies included onlyNestor or Strigops, and not both taxa. Some old classification systems do position Nestor and Strigops well apart (see Sibley & Ahlquist 1990 for a review); however, because they all look somewhat alike, because they’re all endemic to New Zealand, and because they group together in molecular phylogenies, it’s universally thought today that they form a clade, termed variously Nestoridae, Nestorinae or Nestorini. However, Strigopini, Strigopinae and Strigopidae have been used for Strigops alone (both Nestoridae and Strigopidae were first used by Charles Lucien Bonaparte in 1849). Most recently, Joseph et al. (2012) have advocated the use of a clade called Strigopoidea that includes both Nestoridae and Strigopidae. Several fossil relatives of the Kea and Kaka – included together within the genus Nelepsittacus – are known from the Early Miocene St Bathans Fauna of Otago (Worthy et al. 2011).

Different parrot phylogenies compared, from Mayr (2010). Sorry about the low resolution: hopefully, you can make out Nestor and/or Strigops being shown as the sister-taxon or sister-group to the remainder of the crown-parrot clade.

Several of these studies also show that cockatoos – that is, the clade Cacatuini (conventionally considered a ‘Tribe’), Cacatuinae, Cacatuidae or Cacatuoidea (see Joseph et al. 2012) – then represent the sister-group to the rest of crown-parrots. So, strigopoids represent the sister-group to a cockatoo + all other crown-parrots clade.

The 2006 Night parrot specimen. Night parrots = close to strigopoids, or not? Probably not. Photo by Gary Porter, from McDougall et al. (2009), suppl. info.

Mayr (2010) looked at the anatomy of parrots within a phylogenetic context and argued that strigopoids differ from most other crown-parrots in having a broad, bifurcated anterior spine on the sternum: cockatoos have this condition too, but all other crown-parrots have a narrow, non-bifurcate process (Mayr 2010). In strigopoids and cockatoos, the first few rings on the bronchi (the two tubes that extend between the syrinx and the lungs) are “weak and cartilaginous”, and well separated by thick tracts of membrane, whereas the rings are ossified and in close contact in other crown-parrots. The implication from the distribution of these characters is that strigopoids and cockatoos possess the plesiomorphic condition for parrots, with all other crown-parrots possessing derived conditions. Suggestions that strigopoids might be close relatives of the superficially similar night parrots (Pezoporus) and ground parrots (Geopsittacus) are not correct based on what we currently think.

Because parrot lineages endemic to New Zealand (strigopoid) and Australasia (cacatuine) have been recovered as outside the clade that includes all the remaining crown-parrots of the world, it has been suggested that Australasia represents the ancestral home for these birds (Wright et al. 2010). The ancestors of all other parrot lineages must have moved northwards during various dispersal events. While this scenario of Gondwanan origins and later dispersal has, understandably, been quite popular, it should be noted that other possibilities are still on the cards. Fossil stem-parrots are (so far) from the north, not the south, so it remains plausible that strigopoids and cacatuines dispersed southwards from a northern centre of origin (Naish 2012).

For previous Tet Zoo articles on parrots, on birds endemic to New Zealand, and on some of the other topics mentioned here, see…

Refs – -

Bond, A. B., Wilson, K.-J. & Diamond, J. 1991. Sexual dimorphism in the Kea Nestor notabilis. Emu 91, 12-19.

de Kloet, R. S. & de Kloet, S. R. 2005. The evolution of the spindlin gene in birds: sequence analysis of an intron of the spindlin W and Z gene reveals four major divisions of the Psittaciformes. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 36, 706-721.

Hopson, J. A. 2001. Ecomorphology of avian and nonavian theropod phalangeal proportions: implications for the arboreal versus terrestrial origin of bird flight. In Gauthier, J. & Gall, L. F. (eds.) New Perspectives on the Origin and Early Evolution of Birds: Proceedings of the International Symposium in Honor of John H. Ostrom. Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, pp. 211-235.

Iwaniuk, A. N., Nelson, J. E., James, H. F. & Olson, S. L. 2004. A comparative test of the correlated evolution of flightlessness and relative brain size in birds. Journal of Zoology 263, 317-327.

Joseph, L., Toon, A., Schirtzinger, E. E., Wright, T. F. & Schodde, R. 2012. A revised nomenclature and classification for family-group taxa of parrots (Psittaciformes). Zootaxa 3205, 26-40.

Livezey, B. C. 1992. Morphological corollaries and ecological implications of flightlessness in the kakapo (Psittaciformes: Strigops habroptilus). Journal of Morphology 213, 105-145.

Mayr, G. 2010. Parrot interrelationships – morphology and the new molecular phylogenies. Emu 110, 348-357.

McDougall, A., Porter, G., Mostert, M., Cupitt, R., Cupitt, S., Joseph, L., Murphy, S., Janetzki, H., Gallagher, A. & Burbridge, A. 2009. Another piece in an Australian ornithological puzzle – a second Night parrot is found dead in Queensland. Emu 109, 198-203.

Naish, D. 2012. Birds. In Brett-Surman, M. K., Holtz, T. R. & Farlow, J. O. (eds) The Complete Dinosaur (Second Edition). Indiana University Press (Bloomington & Indianapolis), pp. 379-423.

Schweizer, M., Seehausen, O., Güntert, M. & Hertwig, S. T. 2010. The evolutionary diversification of parrots supports a taxon pulse model with multiple trans-oceanic dispersal events and local radiations. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 54, 984-994.

Selander, R. K. 1966. Sexual dimorphism and differential niche utilization in birds. Condor 68, 113-151.

Sibley, C. G. & Ahlquist, J. A. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tokita, M., Kiyoshi, T. & Armstrong, K. N. (2007). Evolution of craniofacial novelty in parrots through developmental modularity and heterochrony. Evolution & Development 9, 590-601.

Worthy, T. & Holdaway, R. N. 2002. The Lost World of the Moa. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.

- ., Tennyson, A. J. D., Scofield, R. P. 2011. An early Miocene diversity of parrots (Aves, Strigopidae, Nestorinae) from New Zealand. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 31, 1102-1116.

Wright, T. F., Schirtzinger, E. E., Matsumoto, T., Eberhard, J. R., Graves, G. R., Sanchez, J. J., Capelli, S., Müller, H., Scharpegge, J., Chambers, G. K. & Fleischer, R. C. 2008. A multilocus molecular phylogeny of the parrots (Psittaciformes): support for a Gondwanan origin during the Cretaceous. Molecular Biology and Evolution 25, 2141-2156.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jbrougham 2:49 pm 03/2/2013

    Another fascinating essay! I must ask what you are suggesting about hypothetical terrestrial mammal predators on New Zealand? You must mean something like marsupial predators that could have lived on NZ, as they do still in Australia, if NZ was indeed once entirely beneath the sea and recolonized by it’s characteristic biota from nearby islands. Is there any fossil evidence for this?

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  2. 2. jbrougham 3:17 pm 03/2/2013

    Yes, Jason, there is. Not for a predator per se, but Worthy et al. (2006) reported fossils of at least one species of basal mammal from St. Bathans, NZ, from the mid Miocene, AFTER the Oligocene marine transgression.

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  3. 3. David Marjanović 4:05 pm 03/2/2013

    Oh, so now I learn that the kākāpō (literally “parrot night”) has 3 long vowels. Likewise, the kākā (literally “parrot”) has 2 long vowels; but those of the kea are indeed both short.

    Strigops habroptila

    And Triceratops horrida? …Well. Greek ops is indeed feminine, but: A compound genus-group name ending in -ops is to be treated as masculine, regardless of its derivation or of its treatment by its author.

    *shrug* Strigops habroptilus it is, then, and Triceratops horridus stays.

    reported fossils of at least one species of basal mammal

    Not a marsupial or something, mind you. The phylogenetic analysis in that paper found it in a polytomy with Theria ( = Meta- + Eutheria), Monotremata, and Multituberculata, IIRC.

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  4. 4. David Marjanović 4:20 pm 03/2/2013

    Just fixed Wikipedia. Wikimedia Commons and Wikispecies are for other people to fix.

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  5. 5. naishd 6:08 pm 03/2/2013

    Thanks for comments so far. Most texts have the binomial as Strigops habroptilus, but I noticed while checking details online that habroptila is all over the place. I therefore assumed that there’s been a ruling that I haven’t heard of. Hmm.

    Regarding the Miocene mammals from New Zealand (comments 1 and 2), the reference is…

    Worthy, T. H., Tennyson, A. J. D., Archer, M., Musser, A. M., Hand, S. J., Jones, C., Douglas, B. J., McNamara, J. A. & Beck, R. M. D. 2006. Miocene mammal reveals a Mesozoic ghost lineage on insular New Zealand, southwest Pacific. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, 19419-19423.


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  6. 6. aaronthemad 7:26 pm 03/2/2013

    Actually the head-humping isn’t unique to Sirocco (the kakapo from “Last Chance to See”), or even to human-raised kakapo. The documentary “The Unnatural History of the Kakapo” mentions that when they were rediscovered in Fiordland in the 70s, on the first encounter with a kakapo booming in its depression, the bird approached and climbed up onto the head of a conservationist and tried to mate with him.

    The film also shows footage of a sea bird randomly wandering into a kakapo’s booming hollow, and the kakapo pins it down and mates with it so vigorously that it kills it! They also showed footage of 2 kakapo mating, which is pretty similar except that the female is robust enough to come away unharmed.

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  7. 7. Metridia 12:57 am 03/3/2013

    @David- Just checked, actually Worthy et al. suggest the St Bathans mammal is part of the mammalian crown group, in a trichotomy with multituberculates, Tinodon, and therians.

    Interesting article citing Worthy et al. – apparently the Southwest Pacific was also the last refuge of another Mesozoic survivor, the seed ferns.

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  8. 8. Metridia 1:05 am 03/3/2013

    Actually, I guess you could say the seed ferns were survivors of the Paleozoic more than the Mesozoic o.O

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  9. 9. Dartian 2:15 am 03/3/2013

    A massive sense of smug satisfaction to whomever can identify all 16 species shown here.

    -Kea, kaka, and kakapo (obviously)
    -New Zealand harrier
    -New Zealand pigeon
    -morepork owl
    -long-tailed cuckoo
    -New Zealand kingfisher
    -pied fantail
    -and a bunch of unidentifiables (there’s seems to be at least one acanthisittid there, but I can’t tell which species).

    How much smugness did that entitle me to? ;)

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  10. 10. Dartian 2:34 am 03/3/2013

    Oh, I forgot to have a look at the closeup photo of the kaka: isn’t that a (female) New Zealand bellbird?

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  11. 11. Andreas Johansson 5:36 am 03/3/2013

    Nestor meridionalis septentrionalis translates as “northern southern Nestor”.

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  12. 12. BrianL 7:56 am 03/3/2013

    What’s rather unappreciated about *Nestor* is that it is (or rather was) an insular taxon with remarkable dispersal/colonisation abilities, given that it colonised both the Chatham Islands and Norfolk Island. Bonus points for being among the relatively few parrot taxa that could be described as decent/good at spreading to islands.

    The pattern here is quite interesting, given that such good dispersers tend to be phylogenetically bracketed by taxa that appear to be strictly continental. *Cyanoramphus* comes to mind, spreading across the soutern Pacific in what appears to have been a rather irratic patern but *Psittacula* is probably the best example, having colonised the Adaman Islands, the Seychelles, the Mascarenes and eastern Africa from the Asian mainland (and presumably across the Indian Ocean). *Psittacula*’s sister taxa are restricted to South-East Asia (if we do not count the extinct Mascarene taxa that may have descended from stem-*Psittacula* or something closely related). Likewise, *Amazona* is bracketed by taxa that are strictly continental while the genus itself has repeatedly colonised the West Indies. For some reason, such taxa appear to be more prone to ending up on islands or perhaps better at succesfully colonising them. (Shades of modern *Psittacula krameri* being pretty good at establishing itself as an exotic throughout the world here).

    And finally, an anecdote. I remember visiting Artis Zoo in Amsterdam where I was quite surprised by the fact that the kea they had on display there (and which were, as can be expected, very curious and playful) actually grabbed a small stick that was in their aviary and held it through the wire mesh, reaching it to me. When I grabbed it, it became clear they had invited me to play tug-of-war with them, which I did. I was quite impressed by how thought out that action seemed to be. Of course, kea are known for their intelligence.

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  13. 13. David Marjanović 9:17 am 03/3/2013

    and the kakapo pins it down and mates with it so vigorously that it kills it!

    By just trampling?

    Just checked, actually Worthy et al. suggest the St Bathans mammal is part of the mammalian crown group,

    That doesn’t contradict what I said. :-) The crown group of a taxon consists of the last common ancestor of all extant members of that taxon, plus all descendants of that ancestor. Monotremes are mammals, and they’re not all dead, so they’re part of the mammalian crown group (…which is identical to Mammalia itself, given the most popular definition of the latter name).

    in a trichotomy with multituberculates, Tinodon, and therians.

    That does, though – thanks.

    Interesting article citing Worthy et al. – apparently the Southwest Pacific was also the last refuge of another Mesozoic survivor, the seed ferns.

    o_O How did I manage to miss that when I read the paper!?! …Oh, maybe I didn’t read the paper, because I didn’t have access to PNAS at the time? I’ll download it tomorrow, then.

    When I grabbed it, it became clear they had invited me to play tug-of-war with them, which I did.


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  14. 14. Zoovolunteer 12:12 pm 03/3/2013

    The kea aviary at Bristol zoo has a stream running through it. Once I saw one of the keas pick up a stick, drop it into the water, and then follow it down the stream as it was washed into the bottom pool, at which point the kea fished it out and flew up to the start of the stream to repeat the process, it did this several time, apparently just for the fun of it.

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  15. 15. Perisoreus 12:41 pm 03/3/2013

    An New Zealand Accipiter? Are you sure? As far as I know, the closest that genus got to NZ is New Caledonia.

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  16. 16. aaronthemad 2:55 pm 03/3/2013

    @David: As I recall, it basically did to the other bird what Sirocco did to David Cawardine’s head; grab on with the feet, rest the body weight on top of the other bird, and then vigorously rub up against it while beating the other bird with its wings. It kept going for a long time, 30-45 minutes. I gather that male kakapo are just very humpy, though Sirocco is particularly fixated on humans.

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  17. 17. Jerzy v. 3.0. 3:14 pm 03/3/2013

    When I heard that Kaka females are larger and have longer beak I thought about reversed sexual dimorphism in large parrots. In Eclectus Parrot and Vasa Parrot female is the brighter sex due to the need to defend nesting hole – apparently large tree holes are scarce resource among parrots.

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  18. 18. BrianL 3:44 pm 03/3/2013


    Competition for large nest holes is certainly considerable. I remember reading in a book called ‘New World parrots in peril’ that the main cause for nest failure for large macaws is other macaws taking over or otherwise disturbing nestholes.

    This clearly suggests that the rectruitment rate of macaws (and presumably of other large cavitity nesters) is strongly influenced by access to and competition for sufficiently large nest holes. This in turn means that provision of such could have quite an impact on breeding success of vulnerable species, the more since macaws aren’t picky when it comes to choosing nest boxes in captivity (and probably not in the wild either, with size being the main problem). If memory serves me right, the only macaw that is genuinely difficult to breed in captivity is a dwarf species, *Orthopsittaca manilata*. Indeed, the captive population of several species is larger than the wild one, with probably-extinct-in-the-wild *Cyanopsitta spixii* being the most extreme example.

    Also keep in mind that some species of macaw, the very rare *Anodorhynchus leari* and *Ara rubrogenys* habitually or exclusively breed in cliffs in the wild so in essence these guys seem to be adaptable when it comes to nesting places.

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  19. 19. naishd 6:48 pm 03/3/2013

    Thanks for all comments so far, great stuff. With reference to the 16 bird species shown in that case, well done Dartian for having a go. The smaller birds are just about impossible to get given their faded state and the small size and poor resolution of the image. Of the 16, you have the following correct…

    - Kea, kaka, and kakapo (obviously)
    - New Zealand harrier (or Kahu or Swamp harrier) Circus approximans)
    - New Zealand pigeon Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae
    - Morepork Ninox novaeseelandiae
    - Longtail cuckoo Eudynamys taitensis
    - New Zealand kingfisher (or Sacred kindfisher) Todiramphus sanctus
    - Tui Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae
    - Pied fantail (or New Zealand fantail) Rhipidura fuliginosa
    - New Zealand bellbird Anthornis melanura

    That’s 11 out of 16 – not bad at all, and I’d say very deserving of a smug sense of self-satisfaction, well done you :) I’ll wait to see if anyone can get the remaining five..


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  20. 20. naishd 6:54 pm 03/3/2013

    Re: an accipiter on New Zealand (see Perisoreus’s comment # 15)… seems I mis-remembered, since their nearest confirmed occurrence to New Zealand was Norfolk Island (and that’s 600 km northwest of North Cape). However, Worthy & Holdaway 2002) state “They [meaning accipiter hawks] may actually have reached the main islands, only to find them occupied by the harrier masquerading as an Accipiter” (p. 355). The Norfolk Island hawks seem to have been extinct by 1800, though a population on Philip Island persisted for a few more decades.


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  21. 21. Christopher Taylor 8:00 pm 03/3/2013

    I suspect that there are two tuis in that case. If that’s so, the bird between them is a robin. Of the two little birds to the right of the robin, the one on the left has unfortunate had its head blurred out, but is it perhaps a yellowhead? The one to its right looks like it may be a silvereye. I think it’s too big for a riroriro. There are no acanthisittids in the case, none of them have the distinctively short tail of an acanthisittid.

    That just leaves the two passerines at the base of the branches. I would have actually guessed that the larger of these two was another bellbird, but that leaves the species tally for the case one short of sixteen. In that case, could it perhaps be a Jack bird?

    The one that has me really at a loss is the little one on the ground, which is a bit too blurry. A fernbird, perhaps?

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  22. 22. Metridia 10:45 pm 03/3/2013

    I see a rifleman and a rock wren in the middle. Love those acanthisittids!

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  23. 23. Dartian 4:40 am 03/4/2013

    taxon with remarkable dispersal/colonisation abilities

    Well, parrots are still birds and able to fly, which makes a big difference as far as dispersal potential goes. After all, one does not simply walk into Mordor – I mean New Zealand.

    If memory serves me right, the only macaw that is genuinely difficult to breed in captivity is a dwarf species

    Oh? My (non-expert’s) impression has always been that all macaws (and, in fact, most species of large psittacines) are actually quite hard to breed in captivity. Is my information out of date?

    I suspect that there are two tuis in that case.

    Could be; at least off the top of my head I can’t think of any other identity for the mid-sized spred-winged black bird under the (other) tui and behind the kingfisher.

    The one to its right looks like it may be a silvereye.

    I thought of that too, but how old are those taxidermy specimens? They look like they would be from the late 19th/very early 20th century. The silvereye Zosterops lateralis self-colonised New Zealand from Australia in the mid-1850ies, but presumably there would have been a time lag of several years or decades until the species became well established as a breeding bird in NZ. How long did it take for the silvereye to become common enough in NZ to be regarded as a ‘native’ species?

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  24. 24. David Marjanović 6:46 am 03/4/2013

    After all, one does not simply walk into Mordor – I mean New Zealand.

    Good that I swept the floor yesterday, because now I’m rolling on it! :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D Day saved!

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  25. 25. Christopher Taylor 6:55 am 03/4/2013

    Could be; at least off the top of my head I can’t think of any other identity for the mid-sized spred-winged black bird under the (other) tui and behind the kingfisher.

    Also, it appears to have the fringe of white hair-looking feathers on the nape that a tui has.

    How long did it take for the silvereye to become common enough in NZ to be regarded as a ‘native’ species?

    I had the same qualms about a silvereye identification, but I still think it’s most likely. I did consider brown creeper, but the mounted bird appears distinctly greenish. Apparently silvereyes first appeared in large numbers in 1856, and spread through the country quite rapidly over the next decade.

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  26. 26. naishd 8:12 am 03/4/2013

    Ok, I’m here to put everyone out of their misery :)

    The remaining birds in the case are…

    – Australasian pipit Anthus novaeseelandiae (on the ground, beneath the flying bellbird)
    – Silvereye Zosterops lateralis (there are two: both are between the pigeon and the flying Tui)
    – New Zealand robin or Toutouwai Petroica australis (next to the flying Tui and beneath the sitting Tui: so, yes, there are two Tui).

    No acanthisittids. And there are two bellbirds: one at top left, one in flight near the ground at right. The small passerines were, obviously, very difficult to identify due to faded plumage colours and low-res, but well done to those who took part.


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  27. 27. Christopher Taylor 8:55 am 03/4/2013

    So we’re mislead by Darren giving us the wrong number of species. Also, that is one dreadfully mounted pipit.

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  28. 28. naishd 9:20 am 03/4/2013

    Details, details. Sorry, I never claimed to be able to count.


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  29. 29. BrianL 10:26 am 03/4/2013


    I do think your information must be somewhat out of date then. That being said, ‘easy to breed’ and ‘common in captivity’ are relative terms. I do think you’d be amazed by the fact that by now, there are several mutations of Blue-and-Yellow Macaw available for whoever has a decent amount of money to spare. Plus, there is a market for hybrid macaws. These would be difficult and prohibitively expensive if macaws were very difficult to breed. Just look up ‘hybrid macaw’, ‘macaw mutation’ or ‘buy/sell macaw’ on Google and be surprised.

    What’s basically required for most species of macaw is a decently sized aviary for a single pair, a big artificial nest hole and compatible birds. Despite their intelligence and individually differing personalities, even the last part is not very difficult in most cases.

    As for other large psittacines, the ease with which they will breed differs considerably. If I’m not mistaken, the likes of galahs, corellas and Grey Parrots aren’t overly difficult to breed. Other cockatoos, Cape Parrots, Amazons, vasa parrots, Pesquet’s parrot and our *Nestor* friends are more challenging to varying degrees, though far from impossible. Kakapo, incidentally, have never been bred in captivity.

    Smaller species similarly run the gamot from ‘never bred in captivity/impossible to keep alive in captivity’ through ‘difficult to breed’ to ‘easy to breed’. The number of mutations available for many species attests to the latter.

    A good pair and some luck helps a lot. For example, my grandparents used to have a pair of *Amazona viridigenalis* ( generally not the easiest species to breed) that, over a time span of some 15 years succesfully reared about 60 young, at about 4 a clutch a year. This was without resorting to taking eggs hand rearing to increase the number of eggs laid. All the birds were parent reared from egg to young adult. Their other birds, such as *A. farinosa*, *A. oratrix* ,*A. amazonica* and *A. auropalliata*, were less spectacularly fertile but each raised about 20 to 30 young a pair in total and all raised their own young.

    It is with displeasure that I should mention not all breeders are as animal friendly as my grandparents were. These days, some resort to nearly industrial production of hand reared chicks that spend little to no time with their parents and with the parents never or rarely raising their young. I can only imagine the stress this causes for such social and intelligent birds as large parrots.

    In other news, I very recently saw a lower mandible of extinct *Lophopsittacus* on display in a museum. There was much rejoicing!

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  30. 30. Dartian 10:51 am 03/4/2013

    there are several mutations of Blue-and-Yellow Macaw available for whoever has a decent amount of money to spare. Plus, there is a market for hybrid macaws.

    I actually was aware of that. But my impression was always that it was just the two or three most commonly kept species (Ara ararauna, A. macao, and maybe A. chloropterus) that were ‘easy’ to breed (and hybridise) and pretty much all the other macaws were difficult. Wasn’t it the case until not so very long ago that births of hyacinth macaws Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus in zoos were news-worthy events?

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  31. 31. BrianL 11:26 am 03/4/2013

    Well, that does depend on what you mean by ‘not so very long ago’. Keep in mind that Hyacinth Macaws are, well, among the rarer species to begin with so breeding them is more unusual in itself. That does not mean it is very difficult. In fact, the Hyacinth Macaw is one of those species that is more common in captivity than in the wild and increasingly so. Hyacinth Macaws are sometimes even involved in the breeding of hybrids (even if this is rare).
    Of note is that, rare or not, the following species of large macaw have captive populations that are larger than their wild ones, thanks in no small part to captive breeding: Hyacinth, Spix’s, Blue-Throated, Red-Fronted. Lear’s may qualify too. Of course, all of these are very rare both in the wild and in captivity so no, you can’t expect them to see them in just about any zoo or collection but all except Spix’s and Lear’s are available as pets, and those institutions that breed them (Parque Loro and Al Wabra (for Spix’s)are the most important of these) are quite succesful at it. That the common species in captivity are common is in no small part because they were far more common to begin with, both in the wild and in captive stock. That does not neccessarily mean the rarer species are more difficult to breed, even if it is more news-worthy due to their rarity. (And to be honest, I’d say only Spix’s and Lear’s are truly news-worthy in that regard, these days.)

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  32. 32. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:22 pm 03/4/2013

    Many conservation projects and wildlife-conscious landowners in S America now supply artificial cavities for macaws and amazons. But trade for pets is still a threat and many populations are very depleted.

    Actually, I wanted to point to the extraordinary breeding biology of Eclectus and Vasa parrots, but it is different thing altogether…

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  33. 33. Dartian 3:20 am 03/5/2013

    that does depend on what you mean by ‘not so very long ago’

    Until two-three decades ago. For example, AFAIK the first time that hyacinth macaws were successfully bred in the UK was as late as in 1983 (Grunebaum & Grunebaum, 1984).

    Hyacinth Macaws are, well, among the rarer species to begin with so breeding them is more unusual in itself. That does not mean it is very difficult.

    Be that as it may, the fact is that various sources suggest otherwise. This website even goes so far as to emphatically state that “In captivity, Hyacinth Macaws are challenging to breed – more so than other parrot species.

    Grunebaum, D. & Grunebaum, W. 1984. Breeding the hyacinthine macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus. Avicultural Magazine, 90(1), 11-16.

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  34. 34. Chabier G. 7:18 am 03/5/2013

    It’s amazing for me to see this Norfolk Kaka with such a overgrown beak. It’s a common feature among captive birds that have a natural tough diet and are fed with too soft matters, I’ve seen many captive birds of prey with this problem, but only a free ranging one (a griffon vulture). Maybe the food available for Norfolk Kakas was not the original, after European settlement?, or was it just a bird with some congenital or traumatic problem?

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  35. 35. BrianL 10:46 am 03/5/2013

    The source you use is from 1984. In ‘psittaculture’ (and perhaps aviculture in general) that’s medieval. In the intervening years, many species have been bred succesfully and repeatedly by both institutions and especially private breeders.
    To illustrate: Back in 1984, Horned Parrot *Eunymphicus cornutus* from New Caledonia was near-mythical as far as aviculture was concerned. While they are still rare today, they are available to the point I’ve seen a captive-bred one casually offered for sale by a Belgian bird dealer a few years ago. Likewise and more tellingly, *Pyrrhura* species were pretty rare in captivity in the ’80s. These days a variety of *Pyrrhura* species is readily available for the enthusiast and some species in a growing number of mutations as well.

    The very statement of ‘challenging to breed- more so than other parrot species’ regarding the Hyacinth Macaw borders on ridiculous: Breeding, say, *Psittrichas* or *Calyptorhynchus* is and was far more challenging. Not to mention a large variety of smaller species (*Touit*, *Nannopsittaca* and especially *Micropsitta* come to mind) that have not been bred in captivity at all, if they even survived for more than a few days.

    If you want more up to date information, you could perhaps try a recent version ‘Lexicon of parrots/ Lexicon der Papageien’ by Thomas Arndt. You’ll find information about any species of parrot and the challenges their captive breeding does or does not pose there.

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  36. 36. BrianL 10:50 am 03/5/2013

    I forgot to add that the lexicon can be consulted online too, here’s what it says about the difficulty of breeding Hyacinth Macaws:
    “Breeding in aviculture: Regularly achieved, but much less often than other large macaws.”
    I may have been a little too overenthusiastic, but not too much.

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  37. 37. Metridia 1:03 pm 03/5/2013

    Ah. I should have known. I was almost going to say silvereye, but went with acanthasittids because what collection of NZ avian taxidermy would be complete without them? I also would have said Black Robin for the one on the right (except implausibly rare) but forgot that there is also the NZ robin. Picture is not that great for the small ones.

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  38. 38. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:14 am 03/6/2013

    That we are now with Hiacynth Macaws. I always wondered why when two macaws squabble, one goes hanging upside down under the branch? Is it a play, the bird upside down is showing off, or is it like pushed into subordinate position?

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  39. 39. David Marjanović 9:41 am 03/6/2013

    Or it just makes squabbling easier, because they can attack straight forward instead of sideways. :-)

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  40. 40. SRPlant 10:40 am 03/6/2013

    I suppose when roosting Hanging parrots squabble the loser comes out on top…

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  41. 41. BrianL 10:48 am 03/6/2013

    I’d say that being particularly acrobatic and agile climbers, parrots take advantage of this when squabbling or playing- they can so they do. Note that parrots can also play, fight and play-fight by interlocking their feet (sometimes one hanging upside down from the other’s foot!) or by lying on their backs, feet up.
    This also reminds me that *Loriculus* species have the apparent distinction of being the only birds that sleep hanging upside down, hence their German name ‘Fledermauspapageien’ and Dutch name ‘vleermuispapegaaien’, both meaning ‘bat-parrot’.

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  42. 42. vdinets 10:49 am 03/6/2013

    Never been to NZ. I am waiting for them to introduce kakapos to some island that is not off-limits.

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  43. 43. Mythusmage 11:30 pm 03/6/2013

    Somebody is fucking with the blog template, tell them to cut it out.

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  44. 44. David Marjanović 2:46 pm 03/7/2013

    What browser are you using, Mythusmage?

    (Also, keep in mind that the SciAm overlords don’t listen to anybody. Ever.)

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  45. 45. imhennessy 12:01 am 03/10/2013

    I just wanted to say that I was lucky enough to go to New Zealand for a couple of weeks. While I got a close up, but very quick view of the Harrier, it looked like a rather dull hawk to my untrained eye.

    The pigeon, though, was spectacular in person. My wife and I were on a quite short trail through some rather dark woods and ended up about a dozen feet from one. After a lifetime of seeing Rock and Mourning Doves, this huge, irridescent green breast with a tiny head made quite an impression.

    Darren, thanks for another article and the conversation which followed it.


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