KAKAPO, the Maori name, signifying “night parrot,” and frequently adopted by English writers, of a bird, commonly called by the British in New Zealand the “ground-parrot” or “owl-parrot.” The existence of this singular form was first made known in 1843 by Ernst Dieffenbach (Travels in N. Zealand, ii. 194), from some of its tail-feathers obtained by him, and he suggested that it was one of the Cuculidae, possibly belonging to the genus Centropus, but he added that it was becoming scarce, and that no example had been seen for many years. G. R. Gray, noticing it in June 1845 (Zool. Voy. “Erebus” and “Terror,” pt. ix. p. 9), was able to say little more of it, but very soon afterwards a skin was received at the British Museum, of which, in the following September, he published a figure (Gen. Birds, pt. xvii.), naming it Strigops habroptilus, and rightly placing it among the parrots, but he did not describe it technically for another eighteen months (Proc. Zool. Society, 1847, p. 61). Many specimens have now been received in Europe, so that it is represented in most museums, and several examples have reached England alive.
In habits the kakapo is almost wholly nocturnal, hiding in holes (which in some instances it seems to make for itself) under the roots of trees or rocks during the day time, and only issuing forth about sunset to seek its food, which is solely vegetable in kind, and consists of the twigs, leaves, seeds and fruits of trees, grass and fern roots—some observers say mosses also. It sometimes climbs trees, but generally remains on the ground, only using its comparatively short wings to balance itself in running or to break its fall when it drops from a tree—though not always then—being apparently incapable of real flight. It thus becomes an easy prey to the marauding creatures—cats, rats and so forth—which European colonists have, by accident or design, let loose in New Zealand. Sir G. Grey says it had been, within the memory of old people, abundant in every part of that country, but (writing in 1854) was then found only in the unsettled districts.
The kakapo is about the size of a raven, of a green or brownish-green colour, thickly freckled and irregularly barred with dark brown, and dashed here and there with longitudinal stripes of light yellow. Examples are subject to much variation in colour and shade, and in some the lower parts are deeply tinged with yellow. Externally the most striking feature of the bird is its head, armed with a powerful beak that it well knows how to use, and its face clothed with hairs and elongated feathers that sufficiently resemble the physiognomy of an owl to justify the generic name bestowed upon it. Of its internal structure little has been described, and that not always correctly. Its furcula has been said (Proc. Zool. Society, 1874, p. 594) to be “lost,” whereas the clavicles, which in most birds unite to form that bone, are present, though they do not meet, while in like manner the bird has been declared (op. cit., 1867, p. 624, note) to furnish among the Carinatae “the only apparent exception to the presence of a keel” to the sternum. The keel, however, is undoubtedly there, as remarked by Blanchard (Ann. Nat. Sc., Zoologie, 4th series, vol. xi. p. 83) and A. Milne Edwards (Ois. Foss. de la France, ii. 516), and, though much reduced in size, is nearly as much developed as in the Dodo and the Ocydrome. The aborted condition of this process can hardly be regarded but in connexion with the incapacity of the bird for flight, and may very likely be the result of disuse. There can be scarcely any doubt as to the propriety of considering this genus the type of a separate family of Psittaci; but whether it stands alone or some other forms (Pezoporus or Geopsittacus, for example, which in coloration and habits present some curious analogies) should be placed with it, must await future determination. In captivity the kakapo is said to show much intelligence, as well as an affectionate and playful disposition. Unfortunately it does not seem to share the longevity characteristic of most parrots, and none that has been held in confinement appears to have long survived, while many succumb speedily.
For further details see Gould’s Birds of Australia (ii. 247), and Handbook (ii. 539); Dr Finsch’s Die Papageien (i. 241), and Sir Walter Buller’s Birds of New Zealand especially. (A. N.)
- This generic term was subsequently altered by Van der Hoeven, rather pedantically, to Stringops, a spelling now generally adopted.
- It has, however, been occasionally observed abroad by day; and, in captivity, one example at least is said to have been as active by day as by night.