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As I reach up into the manuka tree, the shaggy, whiskered face of a giant parrot stares back at me before it turns away from my grasp.Fortunately, my colleague Daryl Eason manages to grab its large foot and slip a bag over its head, barely wincing when its huge bill clamps down on his finger.
The world’s largest parrot, the kakapo is flightless and has been under siege from cats and other non-native mammalian predators, leaving it close to extinction.
Today, there are 123 adult birds sheltered on island refuges away from these invaders, and we are using every available technological gadget and piece of scientific know-how to breed these birds back from the brink.
The big bird in the bag is Gulliver, and we push our way through thick scrubby vegetation to inspect and weigh him, and check his transmitter harness.
Every adult kakapo alive wears one of these tracking devices.
Monitored by plane, satellites and rangers on the ground, the data it transmits tells us when each bird is mating and nesting, and even who they have mated with.
In the breeding season, males develop an inflatable boom sac for calling to females, and Gulliver’s is huge, indicating he’s in the perfect condition to mate.
Beneath the trees, artificial insemination expert Sushil Sood massages a few precious drops of semen from his cloaca, and checks its condition under a microscope.
Meanwhile, team manager Deidre Vercoe collects blood from the bird.
This will tell us how healthy he is, including his vitamin D levels.
Our recent research has shown that kakapo, which are nocturnal so don’t often come into contact with sunlight, have very low vitamin D levels.
They feed their chicks the vitamin D-rich berries of the rimu tree, but the tree only bears fruit every two or three years, and the birds can only breed in those years.
To help the birds along, we have been experimenting with food supplement pellets, low in protein and rich in calcium, to help the birds reach peak fitness during the breeding season.