New Zealand Kaka Parrot


New Zealand Kaka parrot

The New Zealand kaka parrot is a species of the family Nestoridae found in native forests of New Zealand

Psittacus meridionalis Gmelin, Syst. Nat., 1, pt. 1, 1788, p. 333. (New Zealand = Dusky Sound, South Island, ex Latham.)

OTHER NAME Kaka Parrot

New Zealand kaka

DESCRIPTION Length 45 cm. Weight males 383–575 g, females 494–500 g.

ADULTS Forehead, crown, and occiput pale greyish-white, almost white and feathers sometimes margined dull green; nape greyish-brown, feathers marked olive-brown; neck and abdomen brownish-red, noticeably more crimson on hindneck where feathers finely tipped yellow and dark brown

breast olive-brown; ear-coverts orange-yellow; back and wings greenish-brown, on mantle some feathers tipped red; tail-coverts crimson barred dark brown; underwing-coverts and undersides of flight feathers scarlet; tail brownish, tipped paler; brownish-grey bill longer and more curved in male; iris dark brown; legs dark grey.


New Zealand, were present on the North, South, and Stewart Islands, and some offshore islands; formerly on the Chatham Islands.

New zealand parrots

SOURCE: Henry the PaleoGuy


The nominate subspecies, as described above, occur on South Island, mostly west of the Southern Alps, on Stewart Island, and on some offshore islands, including Big South Cape and Codfish Islands and the Chetwode Islands.

2. N. m. septentrionalis Lorenz Nestor septentrionalis Lorenz, Verh. zool.-bot. Ges. Wien, 46,
1896, p. 198. (North Island, New Zealand.)

ADULTS overall plumage coloration duller; forehead, crown, and occiput dull grey; back and wings darker olive-brown, feathers edged darker brown; breast darker brown; less crimson on hindneck; slightly smaller size; weight males 320–555 grams, females 210–455 grams.

  • males: wing 267–272 (269.4) mm, tail 140–161 (152.1) mm, exp. cul. 41–50 (46.6) mm, tarsus 34–36 (35.0) mm. 7
  • females: wing 256–271 (263.0) mm, tail 140–154 (150.6) mm, exp. cul. 39–44 (41.3) mm, tarsus 33–37 (35.1) mm.

Occurs on North Island, and some offshore islands

kaka parrot

Parrot New Zealand Kaka Nestor meridionalis

STATUS Subfossil material indicates that New Zealand Kaka was widespread and common throughout North Island, South Island, and Stewart Island, and they were abundant at the time of European settlement, but by the early 1900s, they had declined to localized flocks (Heather and Robertson 2015).

Buller (1888) noted that they were ‘met with, more or less in every part of the country’, and it was claimed that thousands were killed when large flocks came to feed on favored seasonal foods, such as nectar from flowering rata Metrosideros robusta.

They were widely hunted by Maori for food and for feathers used to make cloaks, and principal methods of capture were with snared perches placed around a decoy bird or spearing and striking birds attracted by a decoy (in Oliver 1955).

However, it is widespread land clearance following European settlement and the introduction of mammalian predators that were responsible for dramatic declines in numbers.

Clearfelling of native forests, competition from introduced Brush-tailed Possums Trichosurus vulpecula and rats for fruits,

competition from introduced Vespula wasps for honeydew, and predation by introduced mustelids have been identified as major causes of strong declines in local populations. Nesting females are killed more easily by mustelids and possums, so producing the very skewed sex ratio in favor of males recorded in many populations on the main islands (Heather and Robertson 2015).

Beggs and Wilson (1991) report that at Big Bush State Forest, in the north of South Island, between November and early January in each year from 1985 to 1990, at a site in Nothofagus forest modified by introduced browsing mammals, field studies were undertaken to examine factors influencing the ability of Kaka to breed successfully where habitat quality has been reduced by introduced browsing mammals and Vespula social wasps, and where introduced predators are present. These investigations were undertaken because of earlier studies of a remnant population on

New Zealand Kaka

South Island had suggested that energy may be a limiting factor for the following reasons: Kaka may expend more energy than they gain while obtaining one of their major protein foods, larvae of Kanuka Longhorn Beetles Ochrocydus huttoni, which are extracted from the trunks of living mountain beech Nothofagus solandri, Nothofagus forests have a small range

of foods with a high net energy return, and this range is reduced further by browsing mammals such as possums, (iii) the availability of the major remaining source of energy, honeydew produced by the scale insect

Ultracoelostoma assimilate is greatly reduced by introducing Vespula wasps at certain times of the year.

Of the 31 birds fitted with radio transmitters during the six years of the study, only two pairs attempted to breed, and only one of these attempts was successful with two chicks fledging.

The only successful nest was protected by wrapping aluminum sheeting around the trunk of the tree to exclude mustelids, but the female from this nest used a different site the next year and was killed, presumably by a Stoat Mustela erminea.

Not only was Kaka absent when wasps were numerous, but no birds fitted with radio transmitters were also seen feeding on honeydew, so for about four months of the year the presence of wasps reduced the energy value of honeydew

and probably the potential feeding rate, that honeydew was no longer a worthwhile source of energy for the parrots. It is suspected that this loss of honeydew as an energy source was the reason for only one successful nesting in the six years of the study.

Beggs and Wilson point out that, although the life expectancy of Kaka is not known, successful breeding by only one pair of 31 birds in five years is a low reproductive rate for even a long-lived species, and is unlikely to compensate for mortality by predation.

On North Island, Kaka now is either absent or rare in most regions, with remnant populations restricted to larger tracts of podocarp-hardwood forest in central districts and some predator-free offshore islands, and on South Island, mostly west of the Southern Alps, they are widespread, though in declining numbers, through larger tracts of Nothofagus and podocarp-hardwood forests (in Powlesland et al. 2009).

While intensive and sustained pest control has dramatically improved the density and sex ratio of populations in a few districts where mammalian pest control is carried out, Kaka is declining throughout the remainder of the range.

It is estimated that in the past 100 years there has been a decline of approximately 60 percent in the total population and in habitat area, and the present population is estimated at 1000– 5000 mature individuals.

Subfossil remains, possibly of this species, were recorded on the Chatham Islands, where the birds are thought to have become extinct before 1871 (in Higgins 1999).

HABITATS Kaka is forest birds, frequenting mostly unmodified indigenous, temperate rainforest, but occurring also in low broadleaf forests comprising trees such as Tawa Beilshmiedia Tawa, hinau Elaeocarpus dentatus, kohekhe Dysoxylum spectabile, rata Metrosideros excelsa and kamahi Weinmannia racemose, usually with much epiphytic growth

and a diverse undergrowth featuring a prevalence of ferns, and tall podocarp forest dominated by totara Podocarpus totara, rimu Dacrydium cupressinum, rata, miro Prumnopitys ferruginea and matai P. taxifolia (in Higgins 1999).

They have been recorded also in Nothofagus forests with sparse understorey or mixed podocarp-broadleaf-beech forests, but rarely in Leptospermum scrubland or logged areas, including stands of dense regrowth.

They usually do not adapt to altered landscapes, but small numbers may remain in remnant patches of forest, and occasionally venture into farmlands, orchards, and urban gardens or parklands, the last being utilized more commonly on Stewart Island.

kaka parrot

New Zealand Kaka

Between 1996 and 2002, studies of nesting behavior were undertaken at two sites on North Island and two sites on South Island (Powlesland et al. 2009).

The first study site on North Island was in a stand of dense podocarp forest at Pureora Forest Park, where the tall forest cover consisted of emergent podocarps, particularly rimu, kahikatea Dacrycarpus dacrydioides, and matai, over a canopy of mainly tawa.

At the second study site in Whirinaki Forest Park, the forest comprised mainly tall stands of podocarp and hardwood trees, such as emergent rimu, with scattered kahikatea, matai, and miro, again over a canopy of mainly Tawa, while on some exposed ridges and slopes the podocarp-hardwood forest was replaced by a mixture of rimu, miro, red beech Nothofagus fusca and Hall’s totara Podocarpus hallii.

At the first study site on South Island, comprising 825 ha of beech forest on the western side of the St Arnaud Range and bordered partly by farmland and Lake Rotoiti, the lower slopes were dominated by red beech and silver beech Nothofagus
menziesii, with mountain beech N.

In Fiordland National Park, the second study site on South Island was in the Eglinton River Valley, a steeply-sided valley with a 0.5–1.0 km wide flat floor

where open, grassy areas were near the river, and elsewhere, up to 1000 m elevation, the covering forest comprised pure stands of silver beech along the margins giving way to stands of red beech farther into the forest, with mountain beech occurring occasionally in the canopy at low altitudes and becoming more common with increased altitude.

At all four study sites, an important component of the forest canopy was formed by masting tree species that produce a superabundance of fruits or seeds at irregular intervals of one to seven years, but little or no fruits or seeds in intervening years.

Moorhouse (1997) points out that on Kapiti Island, where foraging studies were undertaken, a diverse mosaic of indigenous forest and shrubland covers 81 percent of the island, and dominant tree species include five-finger Pseudopanax arboreus, kanuka Kunzea ericoides, kohekohe Dysoxylum spectabile and tawa Beilschmiedia tawa.

Also common are hinau Elaeocarpus dentatus, karaka Corynocarpus laevigatus, and mahoe Melicytis ramiflorus, with northern rata Metrosideros robusta and pukatea Laurelia novae-zelandiae occurring as scattered emergents.

MOVEMENTS Kaka wander about, though this was more regular in earlier times when they were more common and widespread, and then they could appear suddenly in an area from which they had been absent for some time.

Roberts (1953) reported that the lightkeeper on Burgess Island, in the Mokohinau Group, claimed that they passed through the island at a certain time of the year and perched near the lighthouse for only one day before moving south the following night.

They commute freely between the northern islands and wander to coastal forests and towns on North Island (Heather and Robertson 2015).

Also on North Island, translocations to Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary and Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre have been successful, with the local population currently estimated at 200 to 250 birds, and now Kaka commonly is encountered in suburbs of nearby Wellington.

One bird reared in Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary dispersed to Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre, 100 km to the northeast, before returning to the Sanctuary (Miskelly et al. 2005).On South Island, birds occasionally come east of the Southern Alps into coastal Canterbury and Otago.

HABITS In pairs or small parties of up to 10 birds, Kaka are highly conspicuous when in flight above the forest canopy, but when sitting quietly in the treetops or feeding alone amongst the foliage they can be difficult to detect, their presence often being betrayed only by occasional calling or by discarded food scraps falling to the ground underneath.

Beggs and Wilson (1991) report that at Big Bush State Forest, in the north of South Island, the daily activities of 31 birds fitted with radio transmitters were monitored, and it was found that they were active from at least 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.

For males, time spent sleeping was almost 10 hours in summer and slightly more than 12 hours in winter, time spent perching was six hours in summer and almost three hours in winter, time spent walking was one hour in summer and 30

minutes in winter, time spent flying was only 30 minutes in summer and 10 minutes in winter, time spent extracting beetle larvae from tree-trunks was three hours in summer and four hours in winter, and time spent foraging for other foods was five hours in summer and very slightly longer in winter.

For females, time spent sleeping was nine hours in summer and a little more than 12 hours in winter, time spent perching was five hours in summer and about 90 minutes in winter, time spent walking was about 90 minutes in summer and about 40 minutes in winter, time spent flying was approximately 40 minutes in summer and about 20 minutes in winter

and time spent foraging for other foods was about eight hours in summer and approximately nine hours in winter, but no females were observed extracting beetle larvae from tree-trunks. Heather and Robertson (2015) note that Kaka delight in acrobatics and aerobatics, jumping through the trees using the bill as an extra appendage when climbing, and tumbling through the air for enjoyment.

There are reports of highly conspicuous pre-roosting flights becoming common towards nightfall, and Sibson (1947) noted that at each evening on Little Barrier Island, while some birds stayed behind and called continuously from the forest, parties of eight to 12 birds would fly from the flat high over the ridges and sometimes out to sea and back.

On Kapiti Island, these parrots are remarkably tame and will accept food from the hands of visitors to the sanctuary. Males can be intolerant of a near approach of other males, especially in the vicinity of the nest.

Threat displays usually are subtle, such as turning to face the oncoming bird, but at times this is accompanied by harsh calling and lifting the wings to display the red underwing-coverts (in Higgins 1999).

CALLS Kaka is more vocal in the early morning and at dusk, and outside the breeding season, little calling is heard at other times. Their calls comprise a wide variety of melodious whistling notes and harsh grating sounds.

The most frequently heard call is a loud, harsh ka-aa usually given in flight, and contact calls comprise high-pitched, usually monosyllabic whistles and warbles ranging in volume from loud to muted.

A harsh, loud Kraak is given when alarmed, and a harsh, but muted ngaak-ngnaak in disputes between feeding birds. Feeding may be accompanied by low musical karrunk notes.

When indicating a potential nesting site to the female, a male gives a high-pitched squeaking tseetsee-tsee, and when soliciting food from the male, a female utters a loud, harsh whining kree-kree, interspersed with a guttural AAAA (in Higgins 1999).

new zealand parrots

New Zealand Kaka parrot

DIET AND FEEDING The varied diet comprises fruits, seeds, nectar and honeydew, sap from tree-trunks, and insects and their larvae.

Kaka uses their strong bills to crush seeds and to tear away loose bark or dig into decaying tree-trunks to extract larvae of woodboring insects or to feed on exposed sap, and use their brush-tipped tongue to take honeydew excreted by scale insects or nectar from flowers (Heather and Robertson 2015).

Moorhouse (1997) reports that on Kapiti Island, between March 1991 and January 1992, the food of Kaka was recorded while observing the foraging activities of nine radio-tagged birds.

The proportion of time these birds spent foraging relative to other activities varied considerably from month to month, increasing from March to June and from September to November, and there was marked seasonal variation in the diet. Although most birds foraged primarily for wood-boring insect larvae, on seeds of hinau Elaeocarpus dentatis.

Two males continued to feed primarily on hinau seeds until June, but all females stopped eating them after March. Most birds spent about 30 percent of their observed foraging activity feeding on nectar or pollen from five-finger Pseudopanax arboreus in August and nectar and pollen from a variety of sources between November and January.

Foraging for seeds of tawa Beilschmiedia tawa also increased in this same November to January period. Little of the observed foraging activity was devoted to taking fruits and, although most birds fed on fruits of hinau and tawa later in the year, they usually spent less than 12 per cent of their observed foraging activity on these foods.

Only one bird was seen to take fruits of five-finger, but nestling faeces frequently contained these seeds, indicating that it was fed to nestlings.

Invertebrates eaten on Kapiti Island included coleopteran and lepidopteran larvae, probably of kanuka longhorn beetle Ochrocydus huttonii and puriri moth Charagia virescens, extracted from dead branches and live wood, larvae of an undescribed gall midge extracted from galls, six-penny scale insects Ctenochiton Viridis gleaned from leaves, and unidentified invertebrates, possibly including nymphs of Hemideina tree-weta extracted from dead twigs.

Beggs and Wilson (1987) report that during field studies undertaken at Big Bush State Forest, in the north of South Island, Kaka was found to spend 35 percent of their feeding time digging into the trunks of mountain beech Nothofagus solandri to extract the larvae of kanuka longhorn beetles and an unknown amount of time searching for these larvae.

When extracted, a majority of these large larvae were at their most vulnerable stage, packed into pupal chambers and unable to escape into lower portions of their tunnels.

They were also more easily detected at this stage by the plugged exit hole on the surface of the tree trunk.

To extract a single larva, a parrot spent up to two hours of vigorous activity while clinging to the vertical tree-trunk, so it was hypothesized that more energy was expended obtaining one larva than was gained by eating it and that the parrots would need to balance their energy budget by gaining energy from other more energetically economic food such as seeds, fruits or honeydew.

At Big Bush State Forest, the main alternative food was honeydew excreted by the scale insect Ultracoelostoma assimilate, and in spring, when the average feeding time for Kaka was nine hours, the three hours of this time spent taking honeydew was sufficient to give them most of their daily energy requirements (Beggs and Wilson 1991).

Sap-feeding by Kaka is concentrated in late winter and spring when very few nectar sources are available, temperatures are lower and energy demands are high. O’Donnell and Dilks (1989) point out that parrots use two distinct techniques to feed on sap.

They strip bark from a branch or trunk to expose the surface cambium and then lick the sap exudate from the surface. With the second, more specialized technique, a parrot starts by peeling and discarding loose bark from a tree-trunk. It then uses the lower mandible to prise a ‘trapdoor’ through the remaining bark and to gouge a series of tiny holes into the superficial layer of yellow cambium some 6–10 mm below the surface.

At times, when hanging upside down, a bird will lever the ‘trapdoor’ downwards. The resulting horizontal marks are very distinctive, occurring on trunks and large branches from ground level up to high in the canopy, and they persist for a very long time, prompting the suggestion that old scars on large trees could date from pre- European times.

O’Donnell and Dilks recall that in early August 1984, in South Westland, South Island, sap-feeding by two parrots was observed for almost an hour, and spells of prising away bark averaged 6.6 minutes, with intervening times spent revisiting older scars to extract sap which had leaked from the wounds.

An average of 1.8 minutes was spent licking up sap, and one new scar was visited at least four times in the period of observation. Sap feeding has been recorded at both native and introduced trees, and Charles (2012) notes that trees with very few scars have been found near to heavily-scarred trees, suggesting that the parrots may test a number of trees before selecting a preferred tree for feeding.

In native forests, sap-feeding has been recorded mostly at Myrtaceae trees, southern rata Metrosideros umbellata and Metrosideros hybrids, kanuka Kunzea ericoides, rimu Dacrydium cupressinum, matai Prumnopitys taxifolia,

Tawa Beilschmiedia tawa, totara Podocarpus totara, and conifers, but it is not known why these trees are preferred, with a higher sugar concentration or easier access to sap being suggested as possible reasons.

In the Wellington district, North Island, tree damage from sap-