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Islands, Parakeets and People: The conservation of Red-fronted Parakeets on Islands of the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand


New Zealand holds the greatest diversity of Cyanoramphus Parakeets which are left in the world. This fascinating group of parrots used to occur on Tahiti, New Caledonia, Lord Howe Island and Macquarie Island, as well as throughout the New Zealand archipelago. During the last 200 years, however, two species and two sub-species have disappeared, due to the introduction of exotic mammals to fragile island ecosystems, and other unknown causes.

Of the seven species currently recognised, five are present in New Zealand: Red-fronted (or Red-crowned) Parakeet (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae), Yellow-crowned Parakeet (C. auriceps), Forbes Parakeet (C. forbesi), Antipodes Parakeet (C. unicolor) and Malherbe’s Parakeet (C. malherbi). Of these, the Red-fronted Parakeet is the most widespread, ranging from the subtropical Kermadec Islands to the subantarctic Antipodes Islands. It is also the most variable species, with three subspecies currently recognised. The nominal species is also commonly kept in aviaries in New Zealand and around the world.

Sadly, Red-fronted Parakeets (also known by their Maori name as ‘kakariki’), have disappeared from most of their historical range and are currently confined to a number of offshore islands which are free of introduced mammalian predators. Accounts by early European ornithologists mention that these parakeets were so numerous that their feathers could be used to stuff mattresses!

Many aspects of the Red-fronted Parakeets’ behaviour make them easy prey for cats, stoats, rats … and humans. They nest in holes in trees, burrows, rocks and sand banks - often at ground level. Once incubation starts, the female spends long periods inside the nest, and not even visiting intruders seem to distract her from her duty. Terry Greene from the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, observed nesting females, from a specifically designed hide on Little Barrier Island, and reported on an incubating female which remained asleep even when another parakeet entered the nest and walked on her back! A rat or a cat would easily make a meal of such a quiet bird.

Often, fledglings leave the nest before they are able to fly, and as soon as their parents approach to feed them they move about, calling and flapping their wings, to become noticeable. This behaviour is useful to locate nests on predator-free islands, but in areas where introduced mammals occur, it would most likely result in the immediate predation of the chicks.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Rowland Taylor, from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Zealand (DSIR), prepared comprehensive accounts of the dynamics of parakeet populations and their introduced predators. These papers would later become central to implement conservation measures for parakeets. In short, Taylor established that with the available conservation techniques (in particular translocations) “…there is no reason for further extinctions of Cyanoramphus Parakeets in the foreseeable future”.

Perhaps the earliest example of parakeet population growth - after eradication of introduced predators -occurred on Tiritiri Matangi Island. This rather small island (220 ha) - just 3 km off the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, near Auckland city - is an active centre of conservation research in New Zealand. During the 1970’s, captive-bred Red-fronted Parakeets were released on this island (which at the time had Pacific rats or “kiore”) by Chris Smuts-Kennedy from the Wildlife Service, and John Craig and Mark Dawe from the University of Auckland. The parakeets became established on Tiritiri Matangi Island despite the presence of Pacific rats (up to 200 rats per hectare!). In 1993, the rats were eradicated via aerial drop of the anticoagulant broadifacoum, and during the five years following the eradication, the parakeets increased by 178%!

The Tiritiri Matangi Island case highlighted the potential of introduced predator-free islands for the conservation of parakeets and other birds. To date, parakeets have been translocated to Cuvier, Whale and Matiu-Somes Islands, either from captive-bred stock or from the wild. But even with the good news that parakeets would establish and prosper in the absence of predators, the Red-fronted Parakeet became the latest New Zealand parrot to enter the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2005 the species was listed as vulnerable, in recognition of its fragmented distribution and its ongoing decline. Its inclusion in the Red List gives New Zealand the sad distinction of being perhaps the only country with 100% of its parrot fauna listed under categories of threat.

Luckily, New Zealand also has a global reputation of being proactive in conservation, and the required

willpower, volunteer participation, funds and logistics can be arranged fast, and remain steady, to make an impact. In 2006 I was invited by the Motuihe Island Trust to become part of a restoration plan for Motuihe Island, a 180 ha offshore island, which is a mere 30-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland.

Motuihe Island was at one time covered in native forest, but like much of the New Zealand landscape, it was converted to farmland, causing the disappearance of native birds, including parakeets. Later, a community group took up the challenge of eradicating pests and weeds, and of restoring the island to its natural state.

Since 2004 I have studied the reproductive biology of Red-fronted Parakeets on Tiritiri Matangi Island, and the Motuihe Island Trust invited me to review the potential for translocating parakeets to their island. This simple gesture opened up an exciting and challenging project that developed into a four year PhD study!

After 15 months of consultation and planning, involving staff from Massey University, the University of Auckland, Department of Conservation, Auckland Regional Council and two Maori iwi (tribes), Ngati Manuhiri and Ngati Wai, we obtained approval to capture and transfer Red-fronted Parakeets from Little Barrier Island to Motuihe Island.

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