Kakapo may have his wings clipped

Sirocco, the conservation spokesbird and one-time YouTube star, could be banished from a kakapo sanctuary island as his visits to the mainland put him at risk of a fatal new disease.

The discovery of a new strain of beak and feather virus in rare native parrots has led scientists from Canterbury and Massey universities to call for stricter screening of critically endangered birds.

Last month, The Dominion Post revealed the scientists' concerns that the fatal disease could spread to kakapo – of which there are only 123 living birds.

Conservation Department kakapo programme scientist Ron Moorhouse said big decisions now needed to be made about Sirocco's future, not only to protect him from the disease, but also to protect the critically endangered kakapo population.

In January, Prime Minister John Key gave Sirocco the title of official "spokesbird" of conservation as part of New Zealand's role in the International Year of Biodiversity.

Sirocco was an obvious choice as he shot to stardom around the world last year after being caught on film trying to mate with a television presenter's head, Mr Key said.

However Mr Moorhouse said because the role was likely to involve travel around the mainland, it could be too risky for Sirocco to return to Whenua Hou, or Codfish Island, off Stewart Island.

The disease has been detected in rare native red-fronted parakeets, and ecologist Luis Ortiz-Catedral said it was likely to have spread from exotic parrots.

There is no treatment for the disease.

Mr Moorhouse said people who let exotic parrots free in the wild had put native parrots at risk.

To fulfil his role as spokesbird, it was likely Sirocco would have to live out his life on the mainland, Mr Moorhouse said.

Last September, Sirocco spent a week at Auckland Zoo, but Mr Moorhouse said it was unlikely he would live in a zoo long-term, as a predator-free outdoor environment was preferable.

This winter, every kakapo would be tested for the new virus, and Mr Moorhouse said while similar strains had never wiped out a parrot species, it was not worth taking the risk of introducing it to an endangered bird.

The Dominion Post