Belfast Telegraph

A dead parrot sketch that I pray will never be acted out

By Mike Gilson

Pity the poor kakapo. It's a dumb bird, really, but it probably didn't deserve what happened to it. The kakapo is a bloody big parrot that can't fly. A big disadvantage, you might think, and you'd be right.

To add to its woes, it has a call as sonorous as a timpani drum and a sweet giveaway smell good for attracting suitors, but alas also predators. Oh, and there are only 126 of them left on the planet.

It's about as much use as and, alarmingly, vaguely similar to, Keith Harris's Orville, but not as obnoxious. It wasn't always this perilous for the kakapo, but its plight is a wondrous story of evolution and invasion and poses a major question about whether we should interfere in the natural order of things. For thousands of years the kakapo parrot lived happily on islands strung throughout the South Pacific and into the then undiscovered New Zealand.

Blown to these uninhabited, mammal-free islands using underpowered wings, it found itself in paradise, where the only predators were the occasional prehistoric eagles and where food on the floor was plentiful.

So, over those thousands of years it, along with plenty of other birds, lost the use of its wings. There was simply no need to expend the energy.

Things were good. Then, seven centuries ago, man came from somewhere around the Hawaiian Islands. He brought with him a thirst for exploration, a raging hunger in his belly, oh, and rats.

When he discovered the kakapo, he could not believe his eyes. Here was a walking Kentucky Fried Chicken shop that basically stood there and offered itself up.

It's meat was sweet and its feathers adorned headdresses. And the kakapo man didn't eat were taken by the rats, brought as a back-up source of quick breeding food, who swept through the islands devouring everything in their way. The rest is evolutionary history until now, on two islands off the coast of New Zealand, the remaining 126 are the most pampered, watched over creatures on Earth, as humans try to begin to reverse the carnage they created all those centuries ago.

This tale is told in a fantastic book I stumbled across recently by science writer William Stolzenburg called Rat Island. Here's another one. On the tiny mountainous island of Kiska, west of Alaska, a rescue operation is under way to save a wonderful diving seabird called the auklet.

All was well for the auklet and it's North Pacific homelands until the Second World War, when it was a backdrop for fierce naval battles.

At some point a battleship dropped anchor off the island and down that anchor chain scurried our old friend the rat. Fast-forward a few years and an island without predators was now seething with the vermin who could not believe their luck.

So unused to predators are the birds that the rats come up behind them, bite holes in the back of their heads and eat the seabirds' brains and eyes while they stand there. It is a massacre and the rats, the real villains of the piece, kill for killing's sake.

Now a plan is afoot for humans, who, after all, set the rats free, to exterminate the lot of them and allow the auklet to survive. So, asks the author, should we interfere to undo the chain reactions in the natural world our footprints have set off?

Have a look online at that lovable kakapo and hear its plaintiff mating cry. You'd have to have a heart of stone to want to send it where millions of creatures have gone before: extinction.

  • Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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