Flightless Birds of New Zealand

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There are around forty species of flightless birds in the world today, with New Zealand being home to the greatest number of these species. Among New Zealand’s flightless birds are the kiwi, takahe, kakapo and several species of penguins. It is thought that these New Zealand birds never developed the ability to fly because they had no land-based predators to escape from – until the arrival of human beings. Isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years, these flightless birds adapted to their environment in a way that would most benefit them.

Endemic to New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptila) is a flightless parrot with nocturnal habits. Its speckled yellow-green plumage acts as a camouflage for the ground-dwelling herbivorous kakapo. It is the world’s only flightless parrot, as well as being the heaviest parrot in the world, and very possibly the longest-living bird with an average life expectancy of 95 years. It is also the only parrot to have a lek courtship and breeding system, where males gather in an arena and compete with one another to attract available females. The female chooses her mate, presumably based on his performance, they mate and go their separate ways, with the female raising the young. Up to three eggs are laid on the ground or in cavities of tree trunks, with the female incubating them. As she has to leave the eggs at night to search for food, they are subject to plundering by predators, and embryos may die of cold. Chicks that make it through to see the light of day are also vulnerable and remain in the nest until 10 to 12 weeks of age. They stay with their mother for the first six months of their lives. The kakapo is listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Once thought to be extinct, and rediscovered in 1948, the takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri) is another of New Zealand‘s flightless birds. Primarily deep purple-blue in color, the adult bird has a red frontal shield and reddish-pink bill, with pink legs. These monogamous birds are very territorial, laying their eggs in nests under bushes. Conservationists have relocated small groups of the birds to some offshore islands – Kapiti, Maud, Mana and Tiritiri Matangi – considered to be predator-free, where birding enthusiasts can view them in the wild. Thanks to intervention by conservationists, this unusual bird has made a comeback from near extinction to being listed as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN red list.

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