Kaka numbers recovering in Wellington

The kākā, a rare species of native parrot, is making a recovery in Wellington thanks to Zealandia. These parrots were once really abundant, flying in huge flocks over NZ’s native forest, but their populations were decimated because humans introduced mammals and cut down the trees they needed to survive. Kākā were reintroduced to the Wellington region just over 10 years ago and are doing so well they can now be heard all over the city! Read on to find out more about their inquisitive, cheeky character, the best way to attract them to your garden and how you can contribute to our research!

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A curious Wellington kākā checks out the camera (Photo: Bill Beale)

Have you heard the loud skrraaak of a parrot from your backyard? Or maybe whistling from the trees when you’re out walking in the Botanical Gardens? Or you might have even seen a group of noisy birds tumbling and swinging around in the branches of a tree, feeding on cones and flowers…

Yep, they’re kākā!

Kākā are threatened, native, forest-dwelling parrots and are closely related to the cheeky kea found in the mountains of the South Island. Kākā are getting to be quite common in the Wellington greenbelt and many parks around the city, and if you’re lucky enough to live within the Zealandia halo, you might even get them visiting your backyard!

How did we end up with a rare native bird in NZ’s capital city?

Kākā used to be common in Wellington (in fact huge flocks of them were common all over the country), but about a hundred years ago they disappeared from the Wellington region because of forest clearing, as well as predation and competition from introduced mammals (like stoats, possums and rats).

They were reintroduced to the Wellington region in 2002. Six birds were brought from Auckland Zoo to Zealandia and the birds flourished in the valley because they were protected from predators and competitors like stoats, rats and possums by the mammal-proof fence. The population has grown almost entirely from breeding that’s happened within Zealandia – it’s now sitting at somewhere between 180-250 birds! That’s pretty amazing growth for just over 10 years!

You generally hear a kākā before you see one. They make a whole range of different sounds, but the ones you’re most likely to hear are a loud ‘skraak’ call and a musical whistle. You might hear kākā calling to each other as they fly overhead in big groups.  Just like pet parrots, kākā are good at mimicking. Rumour has it that the wolf-whistle call you might have heard in Wellington is only made by kākā in the Wellington population – it was taught to one of the original kākā  by a keeper at Auckland Zoo, that bird then taught all the rest, and the call has stuck!

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A kākā showing off his gorgeous colours (Photo: Bill Beale)

Although they’re not as big or colourful as their well-known alpine cousins, kākā are pretty handsome too. At first glance, they’re mostly brown, but if you get up close check out the silver cap of feathers on their head and their scarlet trousers and under-wings. You can’t tell males and females apart by their feathers, but males generally have bigger and longer beaks, so if you’re looking at one with a huge beak it’s most likely a dude!

Kākā are really strong fliers (in fact, a young bird from Zealandia once flew all the way up to Mt Bruce in the Wairarapa for a short vacation, before flying all the way back again!) and they’re now seen in many Wellington City suburbs – including Ngaio, Brooklyn and Karori and even as far away as Tawa and Makara! As far as I know, they haven’t been seen on the Miramar peninsular (yet), so I’d love to know if you happen to see one over that way.

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A kākā showing off his acrobatic skills on my house in Highbury

I’ve recently completed a study of the kākā in Wellington for a Masters degree at Victoria University. Wellington is the only city with a resident population so it was a great chance to understand how they adapt to life in the city and to investigate how Wellingtonians feel about sharing their city with these mischievous parrots.

Kākā, like all parrots, are really smart. The problem with being smart though, is you get bored easily… While kea  are known for their love of destroying ski huts, windscreen wipers, and the boots of unsuspecting trampers, kākā aren’t quite that bad, but they’re still really curious. Zealandia used to put out wooden nest boxes for birds, but they found that kākā thought these were perfect chew toys, and some people have found that kākā like to nibble on their guttering or weatherboards. Special kākā- proof bait boxes had to be made for putting out pest bait because kākā were investigating the boxes.

Their nibbling isn’t just about brains, their big strong beak definitely helps them out too – it hasn’t been called a can opener for nothing!  It’s perfect for ripping into rotting logs and even through bark and into living wood to get at bugs.

Kākā eat a whole range of different foods: nectar, fruit, berries, seeds, insects and even tree sap. To feed on sap they peel the bark off trees and lick the trunk with their tongue – kākā are one of only a few species of animal in the world that do this! Other sap feeding species include Australian sugar gliders and Hawaiian honey-eaters, and of course woodpeckers in North America. It’s a pretty clever trick, because sap is really high in sugar. It’s pretty much the energy drink of the bird world.

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The kākā’s can-opener beak is crucial for sap feeding. This juvenile kākā is tapping through the bark of an introduced Eucalyptus tree to feed on its sap.

The non-native trees we have in Wellington don’t deal as well as the native trees with having their bark removed – so the kākā’s sweet tooth isn’t such a good thing if you’re a macrocarpa or a birch tree.

I spent the last few years researching sap feeding behaviour in Wellington kākā – things like which birds do it, what tree species get used for sap and what Wellington residents think about it. If you want to know more about what I found out check out a Radio NZ interview here  , or a blog from Zealandia’s resident busybody Alfie Kākā here.

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Me and Alfie Kākā getting to know each other.

If you want some noisy yet entertaining visitors to your garden, the best thing you can do is plant native species that will provide a range of food types across the year. Since kākā like fruit, seeds, nectar and sap, there are many native plant species that will attract them. Check out KC Burns blog link for ideas on the best species to plant. If you have fruit or nut trees in your garden you may discover that kākā quite like those too!

Kākā are seasonal specialists, this means they will make use of whatever is the best food around at the time and then move on to something different later. So make sure you plant species that flower and fruit at different times of the year so that there’s always a kākā smorgasbord at your place.

Although it can be tempting to feed kākā, this can attract them down to within reach of cats and may lead to nutritional problems. Providing natural food by planting species that produce lots of seeds, flowers and fruit is a much better way to attract kākā, and that way you can watch them put that beak to good use!

If watching their antics while foraging isn’t enough, then sending in info about your sightings of kākā is another great thing you can do to help them out. The report-a-bird page on the Zealandia website lets you record all the details about the kākā you’ve seen, and your sighting will go into a database that is used by managers at Zealandia as well as researchers.

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Kākā sightings 2010-2012. Each black dot is a sighting from a member of the public.

While a lot is known about the kākā inside Zealandia, hardly anything is known about where they go and what they do when they head outside the fence. So sightings from the public are really useful.  I put
this map together during my research, based on all the sightings that were sent
in between 2010 and 2012. Thanks to everyone who helped me out and supplied
information for this map.

You may notice many kākā have colourful leg bands. When kākā chicks are almost ready to fledge, the team at Zealandia fit them with a unique combination of coloured leg bands – this means that we can track individual birds around the city, and we can even know their age, sex, breeding and family history!

If you see kākā regularly, either at home or when you’re out on a walk, have a go at reading and recording their bands. They have 3 bands – 2 on one leg, and one big one on the other (this is called the cohort band and tells you which year they fledged). Check out the instructions for reading bands here .  It can seem a little tricky at first, especially when they’re racing around (or even worse, sitting stubbornly on top of their bands!), but be patient and have a go. A pair of binoculars definitely helps!

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This is P-WB (Pink band on his left leg, white over blue on his right leg)(Photo: Bill Beale)

Once you get the hang of it, reading kākā bands is lots of fun, and it gives scientists really valuable information that will help us better understand New Zealand’s only population of native urban parrots!