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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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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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iStock

Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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