The parrot Richard Henry has passed away

Richard Henry – a flightless parrot from New Zealand who is credited for saving his species – has passed away at the age of 80 years.

He was first discovered during an expedition to Fiordland (map) in southern New Zealand in 1975. No one knew how old he was, just that he was a single middle-aged adult. But Richard Henry came to be known as a symbol of hope for his species, and went on to play a significant role in saving others of his kind. When he passed away of natural causes in late December, 2010, he was believed to be about 80 years old.

Richard Henry was a Kakapo, a rare, critically endangered parrot species native to New Zealand. He was named for a Victorian conservationist who was a pioneer in the recovery of his species.

Kakapo are solitary birds. What they lack in flying skills they make up as good hikers and powerful climbers. No one really knows how long they live, but if Richard Henry is any indication, they certainly have long lives.

Their natural diet is fruit, seeds, leaves, stems, and roots of native plants. An especially popular food is the fruit of the rimu tree. Birds in the conservation program are also provided with nutrient pellets to keep them healthy for reproduction.

Male Kakapo begin breeding when they’re about four years old; females, at about 6 years of age. They do not breed every year. Instead, breeding activities are tied to food abundance, such as the fruiting of the rimu tree every two to four years. To attract mates, the male Kakapo inflates his thoracic sac like a balloon, emitting low booming noises (listen here) that can be heard as far away as 3 miles. The booming “voice” of the male Kakapo attracts the attention of females who walk towards his calls to mate with him. The females are left to raise the chicks on their own. They lay between 1 and 4 eggs, incubating them for about 30 days. The chicks typically fledge 10 weeks after hatching, but mom may continue to feed them for as long as 6 months.

Before the arrival of humans to New Zealand, the only natural predators of the Kakapo were birds of prey that hunted during the day. The Kakapo, nocturnal birds that are well-camouflaged by their yellowish moss-green feathers, had little to fear from their predators, and thrived in their far-ranging habitat across New Zealand.

But when humans settled in New Zealand, easy hunting, along with predation by stoats, cats, rats, and dogs, crashed the Kakapo population to the point of extinction. Or so it was thought.

At the time of Richard Henry’s discovery in 1975, the Kakapo were believed to be extinct. But not long after he was found, a small population of the birds was also found on Stewart Island (map) at the tip of southern New Zealand.

Richard Henry and the Stewart Island birds became the foundation of a new breeding program to save the Kakapo from extinction.

There are currently 121 Kakapo in the wild. The birds are being carefully nurtured back from the brink of extinction on Codfish (map) and Anchor (map) Islands, which lie south of southern New Zealand. Among those birds are three sired in 1998 by Richard Henry.

Richard Henry the New Zealand parrot leaves a rich legacy, as a founding father in the renewal of his species, and in raising awareness for these very rare, clownishly adorable birds.

Meet Sirocco. Because of a respiratory illness, Sirocco had to be hand-raised as a chick. As a result, he became imprinted on humans and could not participate in the breeding program. Sirocco is still a wild bird; he does not live in captivity, but because he prefers the company of humans over other Kakapo, he’s become an ambassador for his species, even going on tours as a spokesbird for the Kakapo. Sirocco gained even more fame – and notoriety! – during a hilarious encounter with a BBC documentary team. He’s garnered a large following of fans at his Facebook page and keeps us up-to-date on the latest Kakapo news.

Kakapo Recovery website

January 18, 2011

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