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Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

A Parrot’s First Flight

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

In the latest issue of the print magazine, I have a story about the kakapo, a cartoonishly cute species of parrot that looks like a parakeet crossed with an owl crossed with a Muppet. (You can read it here.) Kakapos are squat, chubby and flightless, and build their nests on the ground and in the open. They’re also nocturnal, and feel their way through the dark forests with patches of whisker-like feathers on their faces. The whole while, they give off a strong, musty scent that’s impossible to ignore. All of this made them easy pickings for human hunters, plus the dogs, cats, rats, and other predators that humans introduced the to the parrot's home in New Zealand. In just a few centuries, one of the country’s most common birds soon disappeared from the main islands, and today there are only 126 kakapo left in carefully monitored, predator-free communities on the smaller islands.

A handful of the birds were transferred to an island that is also, conveniently, one of the last remaining refuges of the Hades flower, an endangered plant that scientists only recently realized had strong ecological ties to the bird. I couldn’t get into too much detail about the transfer operation itself because of space constraints, so here’s the story of how a flightless bird finally took to the skies. 

In the early morning hours one April day last year, parrot wranglers from the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Team (KRT) captured seven of the birds on Codfish and Anchor Islands by hand (all 126 remaining kakapo wear radio transmitters, so they’re easy to find) and placed them into individual pet carriers. Their destination: Hauturu, the “resting place of lingering breezes.”

Called Little Barrier Island in English, Hauturu had been home to a group of kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) in the early 1980s, but the birds had to be removed after the discovery of accidentally-introduced kiore, or Polynesian rats. With the island’s rats eradicated, the KRT hoped that Hauturu would now be safe for kakapo eggs and chicks, and a suitable place for a large, unmanaged kakapo population. On paper, it’s one of the last New Zealand islands where the birds could live without constant human babysitting. It’s big enough for the birds to live and breed there, and outside of the swimming range of rats, stoats, and other predators living on the other islands. 

After the kakapo were snatched up, they were taken by helicopter to the large South Island. There, they were loaded on an airplane and taken to North Island. At the Auckland airport, they were put on another helicopter and taken to Hauturu, where they were released from their carriers. 

That might sound stressful, but kakapo didn’t seem to mind.

“Kakapo appear to be hardy travelers and the main risk is heat stress,” Kakapo Recovery Program Manager Deidre Vercoe Scott said. The birds just needed to be kept cool and comfortable with some damp towels in their crates and some apples and carrots to snack on.

“This was one of the most complex transfers we have done simply because of the distance the birds had to travel,” Vercoe Scott said. “But with careful planning we were able to achieve it within a day, meaning the birds were not disturbed during their normal active period during the night.”

A few months after they arrived, the birds were captured again so KRT members could see how they were adjusting to their new digs. On the whole, Vercoe Scott said, they had settled in well and were in good health. A few of the birds had been part of the island’s previous kakapo population and seemed to have no problems coming back home again. One bird, after a 14 year absence, was able to find her old nesting sites and home range within a week of returning.

Sounds like a happy ending, but this is just the beginning of the kakapo’s adventures on Hauturu. The birds didn’t breed last year, and the KRT wasn’t expecting them to, so soon after transfer. This year might be different, and December through February, their human guardians will keep a close eye on them to “see whether or not they are keen,” said Vercoe Scott. These birds aren’t expected to establish a population on the island just yet, though, so there’s no pressure for romance. Rather, they’re pioneers and guinea pigs testing the suitability of Hauturu as a long-term, unmanaged home. Their service to their species could last as long as 10 years, giving conservationists enough data on breeding success to make the call on whether the birds will return to where they came from or be joined by waves of new settlers, and allowed to live alone and in peace on the little island where lingering breezes rest. 

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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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Christine Colby
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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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