Previous: How One Crab Got Fuzzy to Live Without The Sun
Next: How One Spider Became (Mostly) Vegetarian



View count:256,949
Last sync:2024-04-16 10:15
The kākāpō is New Zealand's chunky, flightless parrot. They like eating fruit and making sounds like little tubas all night long.

Learn more about Kākāpō Recovery here:

Subscribe to the pin club here:
This month's pin is designed by So Lazo. You can find out more about them and their work here:

You can cancel any time by emailing

Host: Hank Green (he/him)
Follow us on socials:
#kākāpō #NewZealand #BizarreBeasts #parrot #kakapo
Thumbnail image by Dr. Andrew Digby;
New Zealand is a country that is just absolutely full of flightless birds, and it has been that way for millennia. There’s something like 16 different species of them alive today, with at least another 15 that’ve gone extinct. And that's kinda just too many birds not doing the one thing that birds are supposed to do. There are 5 species of kiwi running around, laying eggs that are huge relative to their fuzzy little bodies. There are also three different penguins that breed on the mainland, including the smallest penguin species, the aptly-named little penguin. And, in the past, there were giant flightless birds called moas, some of which grew up to 3.6 meters tall. But even in a country jam-packed with flightless birds, there’s one that still finds a way to stand out as a truly bizarre, and adorable, beast.

 [ ♪ Intro ]

 The kakapo is a chunky, nocturnal parrot with no close living relatives. And you may have heard about kakapos before, but somehow, even this relatively well known beast has lots of quirks that have not been shared! They’re the heaviest living parrots, with males weighing in at up to 4 kg. They’re one of only two species of nocturnal parrot, with the other being the incredibly rare and elusive Australian night parrot, sounds like I’m making it up but it’s real, and they’ve got a visual system that’s a mashup of both nocturnal and diurnal traits. They’ve got much more convergent eye orbits than other parrots, more like owls,  but their eye shape and size overlaps with the eyes of diurnal birds. They also have enhanced light sensitivity, more similar to nocturnal birds than other parrots. And, as far as their living relatives, the kaka and the kea, go, DNA analysis suggests that the kakapo split off from them around 28 or 29 million years ago, and both of those guys can still fly.

The kakapo’s flightless-ness, like that of the country’s other gazillion flightless birds, probably evolved because of the absence of mammalian predators on the islands. No predators means no need to make a quick escape,  and both flying and building wing muscle takes a lot of energy. Better to use that energy for breeding, instead, evolutionarily speaking. And this is another part of what makes the kakapo so weird, their unusual breeding system. They lek!

Kakapos are the only lek-breeding bird in New Zealand and the only lekking parrot, period. And know you’re thinking to yourself, should I know what lekking is? Probably not. It's when male animals congregate together to show off for the ladies. For male kakapos, that means they do a bit of landscaping, several males will pick an area and then get rid of the plants there so they can dig shallow bowls with tracks leading to them. After each male has made his own “track and bowl system,” he will attempt to attract female kakapos by spending up to eight hours every night for the next three to five months making two kinds of loud calls: a low-frequency boom and a higher-pitched ching, as you do, I guess? [ kakapo booming sounds ]

If that works, and it usually works out best for one male, with most of the females picking him for reasons that remain unknown to science, the only thing the male contributes to raising of the next generation of kakapos is his DNA. Female kakapos nest and rear the chicks on their own, which is also part of what defines lek breeding. Strangest of all, this breeding happens at irregular intervals, something like every two to seven years. And the reason for that, and for kakapos being lek-breeders, is probably fruit!

See, some of the trees in New Zealand do this thing called masting, where they produce a ton of fruit in some years, but almost none in others. Masting there seems to be triggered by higher than normal summer temperatures a year or two before with the time lag varying by type of tree. As for why these trees mast, well, it’s probably also about reproduction. Pollination by wind is more efficient when everyone puts out their pollen at the same time and more seeds survive when there’s a ton of fruit around for animals to eat, because they can’t eat it all. So, kakapo breeding is controlled by masting, and masting is controlled by hotter than usual summers. And the results are that kakapo only lek and breed in the years when fruit is abundant. Basically, having lots of fruit available in the environment meant that females probably didn’t need male assistance to rear their young and that males couldn’t control the access the females had to these food resources. So, instead, the males began competing for females on the basis of sheer sexiness alone. And kakapo only breeding in masting years combined with the fact that they don’t start breeding until they’re around five years old has made conserving these unique parrots a challenge.

 Unfortunately, being a chunky flightless bird, whose main defense mechanism is freezing to try to blend in with your surroundings doesn’t work when non-native predators, like stoats and cats, are introduced into your environment. It especially doesn’t work when you’re kind of stinky.  Folks have described the kakapo’s scent as being “like a musty violin case,” which, along with being odd, makes them extra-vulnerable to mammalian predators that hunt by scent. Today, kakapo are critically endangered, with only 209 parrots remaining, all of them named!

 If humans can give a name to every single individual of your species things are not going well for you. So, while they used to be widespread on the mainland, all kakapos now live on three small, predator-free islands with each bird being carefully tracked via radio transmitter.  But, great news, their numbers are increasing! There were only 51 kakapos known in 1995 and they had their best breeding season yet in 2019, so maybe there’s still hope for the fattest of parrots. Keeping these smelly, lek-breeding, nocturnal weirdos around would be a win for biodiversity, and would help maintain New Zealand’s status as a land for flightless birds for millennia to come. Start your new year off right with a kakapo!

 The Bizarre Beasts pin club subscription window is open now through the end of January 3rd. The kakapo pin is very cute, musty violin case smell not included. Sign up to get the newest pin in the middle of the month and the pins after that around the time each new video goes live. Also please find us on social media and show us your pins on Twitter @BizarreBeasts, and on Instagram and Facebook @BizarreBeastsShow! And, of course, profits from the pin club always go to support our community’s efforts to decrease maternal mortality in Sierra Leone.

 [ ♪ Outro ]