Frisky Sirocco gets owl for diversion

HEAD CASE: Sirocco, the head-humping kakapo, gets  help from American bird expert Barbara Heidenreich at Zealandia.
HEAD CASE: Sirocco, the head-humping kakapo, gets help from American bird expert Barbara Heidenreich at Zealandia.

His frisky antics made him a global internet sensation, but Sirocco's days of humping human heads could be numbered after a stint of behavioural training.

A stuffed owl, kauri cones and macadamia nuts are among the items in the bag of tricks being used by a specialist American animal trainer who has come to New Zealand specifically to work with the endangered kakapo.

Footage of Sirocco trying to mate with BBC zoologist Mark Carwardine's head has been viewed more than 3.5 million times on YouTube, but the Conservation Department is keen to curb his behaviour if he is to become an advocate for conservation.

American animal trainer and parrot specialist Barbara Heidenreich is spending just over a week with Sirocco after contacting the department and volunteering her skills.

One tactic is to "redirect" his sexual behaviour by using a cuddly toy owl to divert his attractions away from people.

"We have a stuffed puppet we were experimenting with and we were able to get him interacting with it," she said at Zealandia sanctuary in Wellington yesterday. "Then he chose to go to it. We see some hope there."

Sirocco minder Linda Kilduff said he got hormonal at this time of year and would occasionally get aggressive with rangers at his home on Maud Island.

"It's a matter of redirecting that sexual behaviour and training him to vent it more acceptably."

DOC rangers and staff who work with Sirocco will have to keep reinforcing his good behaviour once Ms Heidenreich leaves – and that may involve tactics other than the owl puppet. These could include rewards such as kauri cones and macadamia nuts.

There are only 129 kakapo left.

Sirocco has been on display at Zealandia for more than a month, and 4000 people have seen him. He is due to leave for Maud Island today, with Ms Heidenreich, weather permitting.

The Dominion Post