Kakarikis in the Wild

Yet another report I did for an AVS class.

Kakarikis are strange little parakeets that are native to New Zealand. There are six species of kakariki (two are extinct) and several subspecies (Forshaw, 1977). This paper will focus mainly on the natural history and ecology of the red-fronted kakariki, Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae, although much of the information regarding the red-fronted can be applied to the other species as well. I chose to research this species because out of all the psittacines that I breed, kakarikis have caused me the most trouble. My hen is an exceptional layer, but that is about all. I have watched countless chicks whither and die whether left to their mother, hand-raised by myself, or fostered by my cockatiels who are excellent parents. The abnormally high death rate of chicks, as well the delightful pet qualities of those that do survive to fledging, has captured my interest in these birds. I hope to one day be able to study them myself in their native country.

As island dwellers, kakarikis have had to cope with habitat loss and the introduction of foreign species. Of the four species still surviving, C. unicolor (Antipodes) and C. malherbi (orange-fronted) are the rarest. Many attempts have been made to re-establish species through captive breeding. Sometimes this method is successful, but when it is not, scientists often suspect feral cats to be the reason (MacMillan, 1990). Hybridization among the various species remains a major problem, although some scientists speculate that the orange-front is a only a color mutation of the yellow-crown (C. auriceps) and crosses between these two should be dismissed (Taylor et al. 1986). Update: Scientists have since verified that the orange-fronted kak is a mutation of the yellow-front. However, this mutation is still absent in American aviculture so birds displaying orange are actually red and yellow-front hybrids.

Red-fronted kakarikis are mostly green. Their flight feathers are blue but get dark grey towards the tip and they have a red crown, forehead, and band behind the eye. A red spot is located on both sides below the rump. The eyes are orange, the beak is silver with a black tip, and the cere is brown. The feet are zygodactyl with very long toes and nails. They are twenty-six to twenty-eight centimeters long (Wilson, 1990). Most captive breeders find their birds to weigh around 70 grams for males and 55 grams for females (Vriends, 1992). A study of weights of birds on Aorangi Island indicated that the wild population may be much heavier. This study found that the average weight was 82.1 grams for males and 67.9 for females (Sagar, 1988). This may be due to variations in diet between captive and wild birds.

This species is dimorphic, but people unfamiliar with it may find it difficult to distinguish the sexes. Males are much heavier than females, and have a larger body size. Males also have much wider beaks and heads. Once one is familiar with these differences, the birds become quite easy to sex, even unfeathered chicks.

Kakarikis have several peculiar behaviors. They scratch around on the ground like chickens when searching for food (Hyde, 1995). One study found that kakarikis will eat manuka and kanuka leaves to combat parasites (Greene, 1989). Both plants contain a natural insecticide called leptospermone. Birds will also spread juices from these plants over their feathers.

I have noticed several distinct characteristics and behaviors in my own birds which were not mentioned in any of the articles I found. These observations are completely my own, and should be researched to assess validity. Females are more common than males (other breeders I have spoken with have also noticed this). They are very prone to aspergillosis infections, perhaps because the cold temperatures of New Zealand do not allow fungi to grow as well. They are very agile in flight and can take off backwards. Rather than turning around to see what is behind them, they flip their head back and upon seeing something of interest they will take off and flip over in flight. Their feathers are very long. Tropical and desert psittacines usually have feathers on their body and head which are rather rounded. Kakarikis' feathers are often thinner and longer, most likely to help keep warm. Kakarikis must bathe daily to keep feathers in good condition. Their feathers are very sensitive when in the pin-feather stage. Many pet birds like to have their pin-feathers opened when ready by their owner. Kakariki feathers are damaged by this activity. They become ripped, cut, and jagged along the shaft. This happens the worst in the flight and tail feathers.

The diet of the red-fronted kakariki is typical of most psittacines: plants, fruit, seed, and occasionally insects. Bellingham (1987) found that they ate "ngaio and taupata fruit, pohutukawa flowers, flax seed and grass seed" and that "fruit and seed together formed over two-thirds of the diet." The red-fronted is commonly found foraging on islands where rats were not introduced. The islands where it forages have "a wide range of vegetation - grassland, coastal scrub, and coastal forest (Bellingham, 1987)."

Red-fronted kakarikis are prolific in both the wild and in captivity. In the wild, Bellingham (1987) observed them nesting "under the roots of pohutukawa trees" that grew on cliffs near the sea. Kakarikis can make nests in whatever is available to them. They prefer nesting in trees, but when none are accessible they will nest among roots in cliff crevices, on the ground, even inside burrows. Forshaw (1977) wrote that kakarikis are very adaptable to their habitat. They can exist on any island that is free of introduced predators. On Macquarie Island, which has no trees, they are "completely terrestrial." This willingness to nest virtually anywhere has no doubt helped the kakariki to survive on islands were other birds will not. No real courtship displays have been observed.

The number of eggs laid is very high for such a small bird. This number is the highest in the red-fronted kakariki. Clutches of five to nine eggs are not uncommon. Captive birds, including my own, have been known to lay twelve. Unfortunately, hens with such a large number of eggs often have trouble incubating them all. Only the hens incubate. The incubation period is 20 days (Vriends, 1992). The eggs are similar in size to those of cockatiels, only more rounded. The chicks hatch "covered in white down, but this changes to gray in a few days (Vriends, 1992)."

I could find no information regarding the number of young fledged in the wild, however, captive numbers vary greatly. While kakarikis are capable of rearing large numbers of chicks, "occasionally a high death rate of the young will occur without any apparent cause (Vriends, 1992)." I have personally had this problem myself, but I have always hoped that it was due to a lethal gene factor caused by a limited supply of birds, and not necessarily a trait of this species. Research should be done to see if this problem also occurs in the wild, and what causes it. The young are fed by the parents for a few weeks after fledging.

This species does not migrate, but does occasionally fly to nearby islands in search of food (Sagar, 1988). Red-fronted kakarikis were once common on the mainland in forested areas, but their numbers have been severely reduced. They now remain on Little Barrier, Antipodes, Auckland, New Caledonia, and a few other islands (Forshaw, 1977).

Red-fronted kakarikis and other Cyanoramphus parakeets are curious little psittacines which would greatly benefit from more research. Four of the six species have managed to survive despite habitat loss and the introduction of mammals onto the various islands. Had they been less adaptive, or had they evolved themselves into a very specialized niche like many other island species have done (ie. the kakapo), they might not have endured until today. It is hoped that through research, captive breeding, and restoration of island habitats that this genus will continue to exist as part of New Zealand's unique wildlife.

Literature Cited

Bellingham, Mark. 1987. Red-crowned parakeet on Burgess Island. Notornis 34: 234-236.

Forshaw, J.M. Parrots of the World. T.F.H. Publications: Neptune, NJ. 1977.

Greene, Terry. 1989. Antiparasitic behavior in New Zealand parakeets. Notornis 36: 322-323.

Hyde, Graeme. 1995. The kakariki parakeet. Bird Breeder magazine. Fancy Publications Inc. Vol. 67: 16-24.

MacMillan, B.W.H. 1990. Attempts to re-establish wekas, brown kiwis and red-crowned parakeets in the Waitakere ranges. Notornis 37: 45-51.

Sagar, P.M. 1988. Some characteristics of red-crowned parakeets on the Poor Knights Islands. Notornis 35: 1-8.

Taylor, R.H., E.G. Heatherbell and E.M. Heatherbell. 1986. The orange-fronted parakeet (Cyanoramphus malherbi) is a color morph of the yellow-crowned parakeet (C. auriceps). Notornis 33: 17-22.

Vriends, Mathew M. The New Australian Parakeet Handbook. Barron's Educational Series: Hauppauge, NY. 1992.

Wilson, Kevin. A Guide to Australian Long and Broad-tailed Parrots and New Zealand Kakarikis. Australian Birdkeeper: South Tweed Heads, Australia. 1990.

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1999 Karen Trinkaus