This is not an ex-parrot [longish]

Subject: This is not an ex-parrot [longish]
From: Laurence and Leanne Knight <>
Date: Tue, 19 Sep 2000 18:43:09 +1000
Here's a delightful article from last week's age to brighten your day

This is not an ex-parrot
2000-09-14 02:05:53

And now for something completely different (the parrot sketch, with
apologies to Monty Python's Flying Circus):

"This parrot is a kiwi green. Remarkable bird, innit, squire? Lovely

"Yes, but why did this bird fall flat on his back the moment I got 'im

"He's, ah ... probably pining for the fiords."

"Pinin' for the fiords?!?!?!? 'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This
parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet
'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you
hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is
metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the
bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and
joined the bleedin' choir invisible! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!"

Since eradicating all possums and rats, Codfish Island, or Whenua Hou,
is pristine and reminiscent of the way New Zealand was before humans
arrived. But the Department of Conservation team takes no chances on
this island. Once indoors, the room is sealed, our packs and bags are
opened and the vermin check is under way.

"What would you do if a rat jumps out of one of the bags, or the food
container?" I ask. "We would stomp on it," comes the reply. 

I gaze down at my socks - all footwear is left outside on the verandah.
"Yeah. Sure."

The kakapo team is a dedicated group. Its members obviously love what
they do and feel very strongly about the importance of their work. It is
important too: this is the last stand of the world's largest (up to a
hefty four kilograms), most vulnerable and arguably most loveable

The kakapo is down to just 62 birds, of which only about 15 are breeding
females. Their gentle, solitary, flightless, ground-feeding nature has
left their population devastated by the scourge of feral cats and
stoats. There is just one mainland New Zealand kakapo left; all the
others are remnants of a once-thriving Stewart Island population.

Kakapo evolved into what they are because New Zealand was a land devoid
of mammals. The country was colonised by birds alone and they filled
every niche with sometimes extraordinary avian forms - witness the kiwi. 

Australia too had similar specialisation among its birds and marsupials,
which when exposed to the introduction of placental mammals brought
about dramatic changes and a rash of extinctions. For example, when the
Aborigines arrived with the dingo the Tasmanian tiger disappeared from
mainland Australia.

The members of the team are all too aware of how precarious the kakapo's
position is. They tell me of the joy when a female lays an egg and the
sorrow when a precious chick dies.

There is something deeply moving about a society that goes to these
lengths to save a species from extinction. Through the instrument of the
Department of Conservation; the generous sponsorship and citizenship of
Comalco; and the dedication of a group of endangered species experts,
New Zealand has pledged the resources necessary to give this giant green
parrot another chance.

Southland conservator Lou Sanson, Invercargill businessman Roger Wilson
and I march off along the twisting, turning, circuitous track that
averages a southerly bearing through the trees. The track climbs
steadily till we reached the foot of an abrupt outcrop on to which we
clamber to look out over the tree tops. The clear sky highlights the
magnificent horizon that spreads all around us: from the snow-capped
peaks of Fiordland to the north to the marvellous profile of Stewart
Island on our eastern side.

"Now I don't want you to think that you will necessarily see a kakapo,"
Lou announces. "Normally people never see them."

As the boss of the Southland Conservancy, he should know, as it is their
policy not to disturb or handle the birds unless it is required for
management reasons, but the news comes like a dousing in cold water for

Lou leads us on to a ridge that juts out towards the coastline. We push
on, stumbling through the thick podocarp forest, stopping occasionally
to listen to the cacophony of bird calls that fill the air. As we march,
we talk about the large green birds that presumably lie in hiding all
around us and we watch for any signs of their foraging. The parrots are
vegetarians and eat the berries, leaves, roots and shoots that they find
in the dampness of this Roaring Forties bushland. Then we trek back
across the island to the kakapo team's hut.

The sun is sinking low over Fiordland in the far distance and kaka (a
large and rare bush parrot about the size of a cockatoo), yellow-crowned
parakeets and wood pigeons criss-cross the air above the valley. As the
sun sinks below the horizon, Lou, Roger and I walk out upon the sword of
golden sand of Sealer's Bay. 

We pass three Campbell Island teal that stand in the shallows of the
stream behind the beach. They are flightless, with short, ineffectual
wings, and are the last of just 50 birds left in the wild.

Lines of small waves crease the shore and a platoon of yellow-eyed
penguins breaks from the water, rising to their feet and waddling, as
only penguins can, to the edge of the bush, where they will spend the

We too will spend the night in the bush. But not here. Soon we retrace
our steps to the top of the island, using headlamps in the winter
darkness. Night-time is when the nocturnal kakapo are on the prowl.

The more I talked with the experts around me and read passages from New
Zealand's avian history, the more it became clear that in the 19th
century both the colonists' actions and sentiment were to exterminate
much of the native fauna and replace it. In collaboration with
acclimatisation societies, they introduced creatures from Europe that
they considered might prove useful and make them feel more at home.
There were deer, goats, possums, rabbits, stoats, weasels and cats, to
name a few.

All of this took place with scant regard for the survival of endemic
species. The Australian possum is now such a pest it causes more damage
than rabbits. There are 80 million of them, and they outnumber the
country's sheep almost two to one.

Australian birds such as magpies, rosellas, kookaburras and cockatoos
were introduced and their populations are slowly increasing, with the
likelihood that they too will contribute to the domination of New
Zealand's overly specialised and isolated avian fauna. 

Of course, New Zealand was not always so cut off from Australia. The
kakapo has great similarities to the endangered night parrot and the
ground parrot. While the kakapo is much larger and flightless, the
Australian parrots are capable of only short, quail-like flights and
have similar green plumage. Perhaps these birds are all related in the
distant past when their forebears were still capable aviators.

The night is pitch black and freezing cold as we follow the track in our
gumboots. Jo Joice, a full-time staff member on the island, leads the
way, carrying an aerial (it's like a television antenna) above her head
for tracking the kakapo as she listens on her headphones. An hour later,
our headlamps are focused on the tea-tree and flax to the side of the
track. "He's coming toward us," Jo says quietly. 

There is a rustling sound and I can see one of the tea-trees move ever
so slightly in the cold night air. Suddenly, beside the deep mud and
slush of the track, a small green character called Sinbad appears. 

He is fearless. He runs right up to us and we all crouch down to be near
him. Jo produces a bag of fresh grapes, intended for the kakapo team,
but now to be sacrificed for Sinbad. He cuts sections from the plump
flesh with his sharp beak, making a sound like a cross between a knife
and a grater. When he encounters the seeds, he crushes them in a rapid
scissor action of his powerful bill.

He is a beautiful green, with brown fern-shaped markings on his
feathers. Powerful legs with typical parrot feet - two toes forward and
two to the rear - with impressive fang-like claws. I can see his huge
dark eyes, which seem old and wise on his broad, owl-like face.

It is fantastic to share this moment with him. One of the last of the

Sinbad is one of the hand-reared birds, so while he lives like a wild
kakapo, he still tends to be familiar with humans. As we shiver in the
cold, I can see why the kakapo team are so besotted with their charges.

They are wonderful animals, with personality to boot, as Sinbad soon
demonstrates. He roosts on Lou's boot and then, rather painfully I'm
sure, claws his way up Lou's long-john-clad leg. Roger and I remark
disparagingly that Lou's turquoise-striped long johns deserve such

Soon Sinbad ascends Lou's fleece jacket and perches on his shoulder as
if Lou were Long John Silver. A real parrot on the shoulder of a real
Captain of Conservancy. 

Sinbad is on a roll. He traverses Lou's shoulders, makes an elegant
crossing of his outstretched arm and climbs on to Jo's pack. From there
he steps on to Roger's hand and repeats another ascent of humanity.

I am shaking with the cold - and probably the magic of the moment - as
Sinbad, our bright-green feathered friend, climbs over me, gently
feeling my fingertip in his beak and then giving me a firm peck on the
knuckle. I can feel the weight of this large bird pressing on my arm and
the strange musky scent so characteristic of his endangered kind. Then I
feel his claws gripping folds of my jacket and his bill probing and
investigating around my collar. The incredible thing is that we have not
handled him, he has handled us. 

For me it feels like a brief symbiosis of ancient bird and modern man.
He has circumnavigated our human circle and now it seems it is time to
return to the wilds of Codfish Island. He disappears into a clump of
tea-tree. All I can see with the beam of my headlamp is the rustling of
some branches. I look down at the knuckle that received the kakapo peck.
Sinbad has had the laugh on us. He is definitely not an ex-parrot.

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