Kakapo's future may lie with ailing chick

IMPORTANT PATIENT: The sick baby kakapo, known as Solstice One,  which has been sent to Wellington Zoo for diagnosis and treatment.
IMPORTANT PATIENT: The sick baby kakapo, known as Solstice One, which has been sent to Wellington Zoo for diagnosis and treatment.

A chick with "precious genes" has been flown from Codfish Island sanctuary to be treated by Wellington Zoo's resident kakapo expert.

The gangly grey chick is one of 11 hatchlings from this year's kakapo breeding season and could one day play an important role in the rare parrot's survival.

Solstice One, as the 34-day-old chick is known, had been suffering from unknown respiratory problems and low health.

On Tuesday, it was flown to Wellington for one-on-one treatment from veterinary science manager and kakapo chick expert Lisa Argilla.

She has helped to hand-raise 26 chicks, after working with Conservation Department rangers in heavy breeding seasons.

This week Dr Argilla and her team had been running blood tests, X-rays and other diagnostics to try to work out what was wrong.

She said the chick might be suffering from "fatty liver", which can happen when rangers supplement the adult kakapo population's food sources. "It can be deadly – there was a chick a few years ago that died from it."

Kakapo have a 100 per cent herbivorous diet and rely on rimu fruit for much of their nutrition. In years when rimu trees fail to bear enough fruit, rangers give the birds pellets, but these can be too rich in protein and energy for the baby birds to tolerate.

Solstice One is the only chick from this season's 11 hatchlings to show signs of ill health.

Its mother, Solstice, was found on Stewart Island in June 1997. She was the first kakapo to be found and taken from the island in five years. She laid three eggs in 2002, but all of the chicks died before hatching. "This little chick is very precious, genetically," Dr Argilla said.

Solstice was artificially inseminated to increase the population's genetic diversity, so her chick would be a valuable breeding bird if it stayed healthy. Solstice One, believed to be a female, will be given an official name after her gender is confirmed and iwi have been consulted.

Dr Argilla said she completely disagreed with the suggestion by University of Adelaide scientist Cory Bradshaw this week that the "wonderfully weird" kakapo was among endangered species that were beyond saving.

"I don't think they are – DOC are doing such a good job," Dr Argilla said. "In 10 years they've managed to more than double the population, and also the big breeding seasons are happening closer and closer together, and there's now a higher percentage of females."

DOC's Kakapo Recovery Programme has increased the number of kakapo from 50 to 120 since 1995, not including the 11 chicks hatched this season.

The Dominion Post