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New Zealand kaka
Scrapping kaka.jpg
A pair of North Island kaka in Zealandia, Wellington, New Zealand
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Genus:
Nestor
Species:
meridionalis
Nestor meridionalis -range -New Zealand.png
Range in green

The New Zealand kaka (Māori: kākā) (Nestor meridionalis) is a large species of parrot of the family Nestoridae found in native forests of New Zealand. Two subspecies are recognised. It is endangered and has disappeared from much of its former range.

Taxonomy and naming

The New Zealand kaka was described by German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1788. There are two subspecies, the North Island kaka, Nestor meridionalis septentrionalis, and the South Island kaka, N. m. meridionalis, although more recent research has ruled out allopatric subspeciation. The Māori language name kākā means "parrot", possibly related to , 'to screech'.

The genus Nestor contains four species: the New Zealand kaka (Nestor meridionalis), the kea (N. notabilis), the extinct Norfolk kaka (N. productus), and the extinct Chatham kaka (N. chathamensis). All four are thought to stem from a "proto-kaka", dwelling in the forests of New Zealand five million years ago. Their closest relative is the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus). Together, they form the parrot superfamily Strigopoidea, an ancient group that split off from all other Psittacidae before their radiation.

Kaka showdown at the watering hole

Description

North-Island-Kaka
The New Zealand kaka, like many parrots, uses its feet to hold its food

The New Zealand kaka is a medium-sized parrot, measuring 45 cm (18 in) in length and weighing from 390 to 560 g (14 to 20 oz), with an average of 452 g (0.996 lb). It is closely related to the kea, but has darker plumage and is more arboreal. The forehead and crown are greyish white and the nape is greyish brown. The neck and abdomen are more reddish, while the wings are more brownish. Both sub-species have a strongly patterned brown/green/grey plumage with orange and scarlet flashes under the wings; colour variants which show red to yellow colouration especially on the breast are sometimes found.

This group of parrots is unusual, retaining more primitive features lost in most other parrots because it split off from the rest around 100 million years ago.

The calls include a harsh ka-aa and a whistling u-wiia.

Distribution and habitat

The New Zealand kaka lives in lowland and mid-altitude native forest. Its strongholds are currently the offshore reserves of Kapiti Island, Codfish Island and Little Barrier Island. It is breeding rapidly in the mainland island sanctuary at Zealandia with over 800 birds banded since their reintroduction in 2002. From their reintroduction in 2002 the North Island kaka continue to re-colonise Wellington and a 2015 report showed a significant increase in their numbers over the preceding 12 years.

Behaviour

20101127 Zealandia 0779
Six eggs laid by a North Island kaka in a wooden nestbox at Zealandia wildlife sanctuary, Wellington
Kaka eating pine cone
Kaka enjoy dismantling pine cones to eat the seeds inside.
Kaka parrot
Kaka feeding on tree buds in early spring, Wellington Botanic Gardens

Kaka are mainly arboreal and occupy mid-to-high canopy. They are often seen flying across valleys or calling from the top of emergent trees. They are very gregarious and move in large flocks that often include kea, where they are present.

Breeding

The New Zealand kaka nests in cavities in hollow trees. The entrance hole is often three to six metres above the ground, but can be as low as ground level on predator-free offshore islands. The nest floor is lined with small wood chips and powder. They lay eggs any time between September (late winter) and March (summer). Occasionally, in a good fruiting year, a pair can double clutch, often utilising the same nest hole for the second clutch and extending breeding into winter. They typically lay four eggs, though it can be up to eight, with two chicks fledging. Only the female incubates the eggs, for about 24 days, and cares for the nestlings, but she is regularly fed by the male throughout breeding. Both parents feed the chicks after they have fledged.

Feeding

North Island kākā (Nestor meridionals septentrionalis) in flight
North Island kaka in flight, showing red plumage on underside of wing (at Pukaha / Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre)
Nestor meridionalis -Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, Wellington, New Zealand-8
A North Island kaka at Zealandia wildlife sanctuary, Wellington

The New Zealand kaka eats fruits, berries, seeds, flowers, buds, nectar, sap, plants and invertebrates. It uses its strong beak to shred the cones of the kauri tree to obtain the seeds. It has a brush tongue with which it feeds on nectar, and it uses its strong beak to dig out the grubs of the huhu beetle and to remove bark to feed on sap.

Kaka drilling into branch
Kaka drilling in to get tree sap
Kaka nest
Fledgling in a nest in the Wellington Botanic Gardens
Kaka parrot fledgling
Fledgling climbing a tree in the Wellington Botanic Gardens
Mating kaka
Mating

Conservation status

The New Zealand kaka is considered endangered (CITES II). It has greatly declined across its traditional range as a result of habitat loss, predation by introduced predators such as cats, rats, possums and stoats, and competition from wasps and bees for the honeydew excreted by scale insects. A closely related species, Nestor productus, the Norfolk kaka, became extinct in 1851 for similar reasons.

Predation

Predatory mammals are responsible for the loss of an estimated 26 million native birds and their eggs each year in New Zealand.

As cavity nesters with a long incubation period that requires the mother to stay on the nest for at least 90 days, kaka are particularly vulnerable to predation. Stoats were the main cause of death of nesting adult females, nestlings and fledglings, but possums were also important predators of adult females, eggs and nestlings. There is strong evidence that predation of chicks and females has led to a serious age and sex imbalance, even amongst ostensibly healthy populations.

In parts of the country, the Department of Conservation and local conservation groups have attempted to control predators of kaka through the use of traps, ground baiting and the aerial deployment of sodium fluoroacetate (1080). Where pest control has been carried out, there has been significant recovery of kaka populations. For example, in Pureora Forest Park 20 kaka were radio-tracked in an area to be treated with aerial 1080 in 2001. In nearby Waimanoa Forest, which was not to be treated with 1080, nine kaka were radio-tracked. In the area where 1080 was used, all 20 birds survived that season. Of the nine birds tagged in the untreated area, five were killed by predators that same season.

Competition

Research has shown that honeydew is very important for breeding birds, especially those breeding in southern beech forests. The difficult nature of controlling the wasps makes the New Zealand kaka's future very uncertain.

Human interaction

The increase in the population of North Island kaka in Wellington has led to birds visiting residential gardens and reserves and this in turn has led to more interactions with people. People have been feeding the birds unsuitable food such as nuts, various grains and cheese. Feeding kaka has resulted in metabolic bone disease in kaka chicks. In 2016 80% of the kaka chicks being monitored by the Wellington City Council died from this disease. There have also been instances of kaka nesting in the roofs of houses.

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