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Feature Articles

Kakarikis

A close up of the Red Crown.
A close up of the Red Crown.

My first contact with these birds goes back some 26 years during my first visit to New Zealand.While holidaying in Queenstown, we went for a drive to Paradise, (yes, it is an actual location!) this was quite some distance from Queenstown, almost at the top of the north arm of Lake Wakatipu. We were exploring some old mining ruins, in the location and there on the ground and in nearby scrub was a group of small green parrots. I didn't know what they were, but was intrigued at how tame they appeared, allowing me to get quite close to them as they scratched around feeding on the ground. I now know that they were in fact, Kakarikis, although I can't be sure whether or not they were Yellow Crowns or Red Crowns, as at the time the only thing I was really certain of was that they were definitely parrots. My knowledge about New Zealand parrots at that time was nil, as I was more used to Pink and Gray Galahs, White Cockatoos and Eastern Rosellas.

I am sure I am not the only one uncertain as to the identification of these parrots, many New Zealanders being even more uncertain as to what species they are. My next encounter with Kakarikis was in Australia. About 3 years later, a parrot breeder that lived over the road from my parents place was showing us around his birds. I had primarily always been a finch breeder and did not have much knowledge about parrot species. This breeder took particular delight in showing us a few young Kakarikis that he had been handrearing. We even had them climbing on us. He told us what a great personality they had and how they were one of his favourites. At last I knew what a Kakariki was !!!

Red Crown male.
Red Crown male.

While living down in the lower part of the South Island , it was on one of several trips I have made to Stewart Island that I began to realize many New Zealanders don't know about their native parrakeet. As birdkeepers we take for granted that all Kiwis' know about this small parrot but that's not the case at all. One evening while we were staying in a rented holiday batch in Thule, just over the hill from the main town of Oban on Stewart Island, we were enjoying our view over Paterson inlet. Suddenly a Red Crowned Kakariki landed on a nearby tree top. We were able to get a good shot of this bird with our video camera. Their were four of us there but only two, one being myself, knew what species of bird it was that we were looking at. One Friend, (a Kiwi) started to explain how he and another friend argued one day about whether this was a native of N.Z. It has become even clearer as time has gone by, that unless you are a keen bird person many N.Z'landers don't know what a Kakariki is !!!

Hopefully after reading this article a few more will know a little about this great native parrakeet species.

There are three main species that can be identified in New Zealand. They are

l Red Crowned
(Cyanoramphus novaezellandiae)
2 Yellow Crowned
(Cyanoramphus auriceps)
3 Orange Fronted
(Cyanoraphus malherbi)

Although we identify these three main varieties as being the nominate (or main ones) we see in the wild or in captivity, these parrots are broken into eight subspecies, as in the case of the Red Crown and two different races in the Yellow Crown. Research for this article has helped me identify all of these sub -species which we now list.

Red Crowns
There are four species that occur in the New Zealand region.
Reischek's form, C.n.hochstetteri
This race is found on the Antipodes Island group.
Chatham Island form,
C.n. cathamen, as the name suggests this species is restricted to the Chatham Islands.
Kermadec Island form,
C.n.cyanurus
Only found on the Kermadec Islands. Both of these island forms are a slightly larger bird than the mainland race.
And C.n.novaezeelandiae (already mentioned) the nominate mainland race with a widespread distribution over both South and North Islands.

Of the remaining four species two have become extinct because of human interference, they being:
C.n.subflavescens from Lord Howe Island and C.n. erythrotis from Macquarie Island.
The final two of this species, both in low numbers, are: C.n.cooki from Norfolk Island and C.n.saisetti from New Caledonia.

The Red Crown is the largest of the three species being about the size of an Eastern Rosella, although the birds you see in captivity today do vary in size, some being relatively small, only the size of a Yellow Crown and others quite large birds. This decrease in size in aviary birds could in some cases be the result of inbreeding. The male is usually larger than the hen, having a larger head and this helps identify them from females. The other identifying feature of the male being the beak, which again is usually larger and slightly wider than the hens, otherwise both birds physically appear the same. It seems that it is the descendants of C.n. novaezellandiae that we find in aviaries here in N.Z. and the rest of the world.

Yellow Crown
Yellow Crown

Yellow Crowns
There are two races of Yellow Crowns. The nominate mainland race we have already mentioned C.a. auriceps and the other species is C.a.forbesi known as Forbes Parrakeet.

This latter race is found only on two small islands in the Chatham group, Mangere and Little Mangere. It apparently is larger and more brightly coloured than the mainland variety. During the 70's the number of Forbes Yellow Crowns got as low as just 16 birds, but with help from D.O.C. they were brought back from near extinction.

Yellow Crown
Yellow Crown

As already mentioned, Yellow Crowns are a slightly smaller bird than Red Crowns although they can be sexed in the same manner. The cock again is usually larger particularly in the head and with a larger and broader beak.

As Aviary Birds
Both Red and Yellow Crowned Kakarikis are kept by birdkeepers in aviaries all over New Zealand but, in order to do this, you must first obtain a permit from DOC. Young birds can only be sold to other permit holders. They are certainly one of the most interesting and trusting parrot species I have ever kept. They don't make the noise that many species do and instead of a screech or loud squark, the sound they make is more one of chattering. Something to keep in mind if noise is a problem. Once you become familiar with their call it is quite unique and is easily identified in the N.Z. bush, and I have often heard them calling, even though I have not actually caught sight of the birds themselves. Both species should never be housed together as they will hybridise, beside that, the permit issued plainly states that this is a no no !

They are prolific breeders and it is not uncommon to have large clutches of up to seven or eight young. In saying that they are also not a long living bird as many other large parrots are. These birds use their legs more than any other parrot I have observed. They delight in scratching about on the ground, almost like chooks and will have a taste of just about anything. They also use their legs in running up and down the wire netting in an aviary, unlike other species and watching them in an aviary is an enjoyable experience.

I remember my first breeding from a pair of Yellow Crowns. All went well at first, the hen sitting tight and hatching 5 beautiful young ones. She continued to raise the chicks until they started to feather, then disaster struck. The cockbird had obviously decided it was time for the hen to stop mucking about and start another clutch, chasing her relentlessly around the aviary. At first I thought this was normal behaviour, but became concerned that he might injure the hen . By the time I got to her and removed her from the aviary later in the day it was too late and she died, probably from shock. Now what to do with the chicks that were left ?? I phoned the breeder I had got the birds from and asked if this was normal behaviour and if the cockbird would continue to raise the chicks himself ?

Red Crown at Nest
Red Crown at Nest

He had never had a pair display this type of behaviour before. It was out of character for this species to show such aggressiveness. He thought the chicks would be okay though and that the cockbird would keep on feeding them. Well that's exactly what happened and I ended up with five fully fledged young Yellow Crowns.

Both Yellow and Red Crowns will use a variety of nestbox sizes and shapes but something about 400mm to 500mm in length and 200mm square will do the trick. Once a good pair starts breeding they can keep going all year, so you may have to end up stopping them by taking their nestbox away. The only trouble is, some breeders have found that once they are stopped, it can be hard to get them started again.

One nearby breeder ended up with a population explosion in his aviary, when a pair of Red Crowned Kakarikis raised 17 chicks from several clutches and all of them were flying around the small aviary with the parent birds. It was obvious they needed removed, as he was suspicious that one of the young cockbirds had taken over from the original cock and was mating with the old hen. I assisted by finding another breeder that wanted all of them, so that a colony could be established. The other thing then, to be mindful of, is that young ones mature quickly and if not removed from the aviary, young hens and cocks may start to mate and breed on you, some even under 12 months of age. Young ones should be removed, once they are independent.

Orange Fronted
In the wild these were occasionally seen in with flocks of Yellow Crowns and there was much debate, as to whether it was a separate species, or merely a colour morph (mutation) of the Yellow Crown. In order to undertake a study of this species several were captured and under the supervision of D.O.C. were bred in captivity. Up until 2000 it was still uncertain as to its taxonomy, most concluding it was merely a colour morph. However through DNA work by Victoria University, it has been verified that these birds are in fact a separate species and definitely not a colour morph as first thought. The wild population is thought to be only 200 - 500 birds. They only occur in two South Island high country valleys. They are considered endangered and are fully protected.

Captive History of Orange Fronted
The first Orange Fronted were brought into captivity in 1981-82. These birds were taken in for study purposes and as mentioned, for captive breeding trials. The work involved cross breeding wild Orange Fronted Kakarikis with Captive bred Yellow Crowned Kakariki. The two different coloured Kakarikis were paired to establish if the orange colour could simply be explained as a colour mutation of the Yellow Crowned. None of this work was ever conclusive and eventually the final "evidence" was established using the aforementioned DNA techniques. The captive work was always a contentious issue and many of the people involved still have misgivings as to the current scientific outcome. In the end DNA science has had the final say and a distinct Orange Fronted Kakariki DNA code was established.

It interesting that some wild birds, that are visually orange, after DNA testing show up as hybrids (yellow x orange). Those hybrids were restricted to just one valley, the Hope Valley, where there are no longer any Orange Fronted Kakariki left. Today there are only seven visual Orange Fronted Kakarikis left in captivity. These birds are descendants of those original wild caught Orange Fronteds, that were brought into captivity but having been crossed with Yellow Crowns are all hybrids. Any breeding with these hybrids has been discouraged and the intention is to allow these birds to die out naturally over time. There has been some talk of establishing a new captive population of pure Orange Fronted Kakariki as an insurance population. This idea is under constant review pending regular monitoring of the wild populations, by DOC.

Lutino Mutation
Lutino Mutation

This information about Orange Fronted Kakarikis was provided by Dunedin's Botanical Garden Aviaries, where one of these last seven Orange Fronted's is on display.

Cinnamon Pied Red Crown
Cinnamon Pied Red Crown

Mutations
Some breeders in New Zealand have had an occasional mutation appear in their aviaries. The main one being a pure yellow bird. I did see one of these myself in a southern aviary many years ago. Although I didn't' see it up too close, it was bred from a pair of Red Crowns. The owner didn't know anything about its heritage or genetics having a rather mixed collection of all sorts of birds in a number of different aviaries. All this person knew was that it was yellow and different. Another breeder also told me of his pairs throwing a couple of yellow birds as well over the years he has kept them. With DOC not allowing the breeding and establishing of such coloured mutations, we have to be content with looking at these in overseas collections.


Yes, for many years now both in the U.K and in Australia a number of different mutation Kakarikis have been established. I remember an old issue of the English Birdkeeper featuring a great photo of a pied Kakariki on the front cover. This bird was 50/50, half green and half yellow. That 50/50 combination is always considered the perfect pied specimen and this one appeared to be just that. In Australia pied birds appeared showing differing amounts of yellow feathers, over 15 years ago, but at that stage it seems no true mutations were established in aviaries there. This has changed of recent years, with a few different mutations now well established in Australian aviaries.

In Conclusion
These parrots have one of the best personalities of any parrot I have encountered. Being native to the forests and bush of New Zealand, as far south as Fiordland and Stewart Island there is no question about their being hardy. They are right at home in sub-zero temperatures and must be considered top of the list for an easily managed species that is readily bred. Again the only negative about them that some may consider a drawback, is the fact that they are easily available and inexpensive. This really should not be an issue if you want to enjoy the antics of this fascinating parrot, but might be to some who only see their birds in terms of dollars. If you do experience prolific breeding you may have to limit the amount of young birds, as it is no good having more young than you can either accommodate or move on to others. If you do decide to keep this delightful small green parrot from New Zealand, I am sure you won't be disappointed.

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