I wonder how many guessed what or who the very special something was we planned to see in Wellington? This ambassador for his species is also a well known media star. He has had a guest appearance at Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington for the last six weeks and we were lucky enough to get some of the last bookings to see him before he returns to his island life this weekend.
I am of course talking about Sirocco, the world famous Kākāpō and champion bird for the New Zealand Kākāpō Recovery programme. Sirocco is one of only 125 kākāpō left in the world, all in New Zealand and all living on predator free islands. Not too long ago there were just 18 birds left and they were fast heading for extinction.
The kākāpō is a large, flightless nocturnal ground dwelling parrot and is endemic to New Zealand. A combination of traits make the kākāpō unique among its kind; it is the world's only flightless parrot, the heaviest parrot, it is nocturnal and herbivorous, has no male parental care and is also possibly one of the world's longest-living birds.
Sirocco had an uncertain start to life, suffering a respiratory illness at three weeks old while being raised by his mother, Zephyr. Rangers moved Sirocco to their hut for treatment and he became the first ever male kākāpō to be hand-raised. Kākāpō chicks put on most of their adult weight during the first few months and by the time he was 52 days old he had recovered enough to be released, ready to survive on his own.
But Sirocco had other ideas. It would seem that the call of the wild wasn’t so loud for him and it soon became apparent that, as a result of the intensive hand-raising and lack of kākāpō company, he had been imprinted on humans. The Kākāpō Recovery team realised he was unlikely to be an effective breeding bird, but instead an extremely good advocate for his species, providing the best opportunity for people to meet a live kākāpō.
Sirocco remains a wild bird, he does not live in captivity but has visited several places in the last few years – on tour as an ambassador for his species. He has proved to be an ideal bird for kākāpō advocacy and seems to thrive on all the attention.
But it was a unique encounter with zoologist Mark Carwardine, who was filming a BBC documentary with British actor Stephen Fry, which rocketed Sirocco into the global spotlight. Footage from the program Last Chance to See which showed a rather ‘frisky’ Sirocco attempting to mate Carwardine’s head was posted on YouTube and the kākāpō star was born. Here’s the link to that YouTube clip-
Shagged by a Rare Parrot
Obviously being a nocturnal parrot, our tour to meet Sirocco, was at night. We were in a group of around 20 people and our tour began with a talk & viewing a short film on Sirocco. It also included all the ‘Dos & Don’ts’, the most important one being no camera flashes or focusing lights allowed- this was reiterated about half a dozen times by the various tour guides and Sirocco’s handler before we reached his enclosure.
We left the Zealandia’s reception, passed through the predator proof fence control gates and out into the sanctuary to walk a couple hundred metres up the path until we reached Sirocco’s headquarters- which looked a little less glamorous in daylight. This was taken when we visited the sanctuary the next day to see the rest of the birds.
Sirocco was in a large area under subdued lighting and behind perplex- I knew we wouldn’t have been able to see him ‘in the flesh’, it would be far too stressful and risky for such a precious bird. As it is he has to go into quarantine before he is returned to his island home so he doesn’t take any nasty diseases back with him.
Sirocco loves humans though and we were told to move in close so he could see our faces and be as vocal and as silly as we wanted without banging or tapping the perplex. He loves bright hats & scarves and people being animated and singing. I guess our group were a little too inhibited as he just sat on his log in the corner preening for quite a while (Mum, Rachel…we needed you!).
And because everyone wanted a photo of Sirocco and everybody crowded in so he could see them, that along with a very slow shutter speed & not much light, it was extremely hard to get any decent shots of him. The reflections were atrocious as can be see in the photo up above with people crowded around the window. But I managed to take a few that I’m reasonably happy with and I can now say I’m one of the very few people in the world to have seen a live kākāpō and especially a famous one named Sirocco.
Sirocco did move off his perch, he made his way down to the other end and back again along a horizontal branch, squawking loudly just the once and doing a huge poo mid pole. The tour guides 'helpfully' had a plastic bag with them and a recent poo inside so people could smell it (herbaceous) and feel the weight. Not so heavy for such a large poop and bird.
Sirocco is 18 years old and has many years ahead of him- it’s not know how old he'll actually get to but it’s thought well into his 80s and possibly over 90. He weights just under 4kg, which is the usual weight of an adult male although he’ll fatten up a little more over spring and summer in preparation for the harsh winter.
All too soon the tour came to an end and Alicia, Sirocco’s handler & minder, moved into the enclosure to reassure him and answer any further questions. She also had a pocket full of treats- pine nuts. Here he thinking I’m sure she’ll give me one soon…
It was a privilege and a thrill to finally meet Sirocco and what a beautiful, endearing character he is- I just wanted to stroke his back and give him a cuddle. Long may he go on being number one kākāpō ambassador supporting his highly endangered family.
I was very sad and rather poignant to hear the next day that Gary 'Arab' Aburn the "man with a beard right down to his dog" and passionate kākāpō conservationist passed away the night we visited Sirocco. We have so much to thank him for:
From the 1989 BBC radio documentary series and its accompanying book, written and presented by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine-
A few minutes later Arab himself arrived. I had no idea what I expected a freelance kakapo tracker to look like, but once we saw him, it was clear that if he was hidden in a crowd of a thousand random people you would still know instantly that he was the freelance kakapo tracker. He was tall, rangy, immensely weather-beaten, and he had a grizzled beard that reached all the way down to his dog, who was called Boss. He nodded curtly to us and squatted down to fuss with his dog for a moment. Then he seemed to think that perhaps he had been a little over curt with us and leant across Boss to shake our hands. Thinking that he had perhaps overdone this in turn, he then looked up and made a very disgruntled face at the weather.
With this brief display of complete social confusion he revealed himself to be an utterly charming and likeable man. Nevertheless, the half-hour helicopter trip over to Codfish Island was a little tense. We tried to make cheerful small talk, but this was rendered almost impossible by the deafening thunder of the rotor blades. In a helicopter cockpit you can just about talk to someone who is keen to hear what you have to say, but it is not the best situation in which to try to break the ice. `What did you say? I just said, "What did you say?... 'Ah. What did you say before you said, "What did you say?... 'I said, "What did you say?"' `I just said, "Do you come here often?" but let it pass.'
And here is a link to the Otago Daily Times and a recent article on- The Life of the Kakapo Man