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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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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