Endangered flightless parrot sees highest population in 50 years after artificial insemination

Kakapo parrot.
Kakapo parrot.

The population of New Zealand's treasured kākāpō has now reached 252, the highest number of the endangered birds seen in almost 50 years, the country's Department of Conservation announced Tuesday.

Kākāpō are flightless nocturnal parrots that are unique to New Zealand and a taonga (or treasure) for Ngāi Tahu, the Māori people of the southern islands, the Department of Conservation noted in a news release. The bird is one of the most distinctive roaming the Earth – with an owl-like face, pot belly and life span that can reach 90 years. But the kākāpō has been critically endangered for decades.

The 2022 breeding season brought 55 new chicks, increasing the kākāpō population by almost 28% since last year, when there was a total of 192 birds. To put that number into perspective, there was once only about 50 kākāpō left – when the bird's population reached an all-time low in the 1990s.

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“There is an all-hands-on-deck approach to saving kākāpō,” New Zealand conservation minister Poto Williams said in a statement. “This has been the second-biggest breeding season, leading to the highest number of birds since the 1970s, but we can’t take our eye off the ball."

The kākāpō conservation team has also seen growing success in artificial insemination efforts, which is crucial for a species that has very low fertility rates and breeds only every two to four years, according to the Department of Conservation.

"Between 2009 and 2019, with the help of international experts, five chicks were produced by artificial insemination. Due to COVID-19 border closures, the team tackled the project alone in 2022 and produced a record-breaking nine chicks," Williams said.

Andrew Digby, science adviser for the New Zealand Department of Conservation's Kākāpō Recovery, also celebrated the success on Twitter Tuesday. Digby confirmed that eight of the nine chicks produced by artificial insemination have survived, "helping improve genetic representation and fertility."

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In Tuesday's announcement, Tāne Davis, who has been the Te Runanga O Ngāi Tahu representative for the recovery program since 2005, added that, "Ngāi Tahu connections to the mauri of kākāpō is strengthened as the population grows."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Endangered New Zealand kākāpō parrot sees population boost