A parrot without peer
Sirocco: he's charismatic, pampered, irresistible, unpredictable has more than 12,000 followers on Facebook, and may or may not have a preference for blondes. Gwyneth Hyndman talks to author Sarah Ell about her new book on the Russell Brand of the bird world and chats to the lucky few who have watched the kakapo grow from a sickly chick to a conservation rock star.
A viral YouTube clip of a rare New Zealand bird trying to head-hump a British zoologist for a BBC nature programme could be regarded as a PR disaster.
Or, a golden opportunity to make some serious cash for conservation.
The 2009 footage of Sirocco trying to copulate with film presenter Mark Carwardine as actor Stephen Fry dies of laughter in the background continues to do wonders for the Kakapo Recovery programme; three years on the 15-year-old - the first ever male kakapo in the world to be hand-raised - continues to flourish on tour around New Zealand, with 10,000 viewings in the last two touring seasons.
Author Sarah Ell elegantly summarises the plight of the kakapo on page 36 of Sirocco, the Rock Star Kakapo, following news of a dismal breeding season last year: "Trying to bring the kakapo back from the brink of extinction is a long, slow process, and only time will tell if it is successful. In the meantime, Sirocco will do what he can to tell the world that some things - like kakapo - are too precious to be lost forever."
The Southland native is still doing his bit to market his species - just with a little less elegance at times.
Ell, who was inspired to write the 47-page book this year, describes Sirocco as a charismatic personality that she had a chance to view during his 12-day visit to the Auckland Zoo in 2009. Her encounter at the glass enclosure left her with the impression of the kakapo being an intriguing cross between "a curious child and a very old person".
An established author with three teenage novels and a book about the history of Christmas in New Zealand behind her, the "conservation-mad" daughter of a past president at Forest and Bird knew from first viewing that she had a new book hero. Ell got in touch with Daryl Eason of the Conservation Department, who encouraged her with his "mine of information".
Eason, who had been with Sirocco since he was still in the egg, says he thought a children's book was quite a good idea.
"I always enjoy watching his life," Eason says, of the first surviving kakapo he has helped raise by hand. Sirocco has always been full of surprises and hasn't always behaved how conservationists wanted him to. "He didn't work as a sperm donor and not as an integrated bird. But he's turned into a great advocate."
Sirocco was born in 1997 on Codfish Island, a 14 square kilometre island just off the coast of Stewart Island, one of two 40-gram chicks born to Felix and Zephyr. DOC rangers kept a close watch over the kakapo. That year there were only 51 kakapo left in the world and a lot was riding on the boys' survival.
When Sirocco developed respiratory problems he was moved to the island hut for treatment. He gained weight and once he was deemed capable of surviving in the bush, was released. But it was soon obvious that Sirocco had come to prefer the company of humans to the call of the wild.
Kakapo Recovery programme manager Deirdre Vercoe Scott first met Sirocco when she was a volunteer in 1997. He was just a chick, but Scott says she found him "captivating" when he'd walk with her across Codfish Island.
"It was puzzling - here's a bird not quite doing the right thing . . . so we tried different things with him . . ."
Artificial insemination - the obvious first point of action for the conservation programme - was a no-go for Sirocco ("He was all talk, it turns out," Scott says), but rangers began to see how Sirocco's natural charisma could work to his advantage. It may not do much to increase his species - but being "all talk" could work in his favour as a conservation spokesbird, they believed.
"All along its been a bit trial and error, but the contribution he's making now, it's significant," Scott says. "He seems to really thrive in the outdoor enclosures and he engages with people on his own terms."
From July to November Sirocco is "a real sweetheart," she says, "a really lovely boy." November to March is Sirocco's "high testosterone phase" when he is simply "too amorous".
DOC volunteer Paula Hannon, of Christchurch, remembers being the object of Sirocco's attentions when she spent a week on Maud Island in May.
She and three other volunteers had been warned about his behaviour, but
she wasn't quite prepared for it, when Sirocco came wandering into the hut, jumped on to the couch she was sitting on and then hopped on her head, dug his feet in, and started flapping.
"I had no idea what was going on . . . I didn't know if it was fun or if he was angry with me."
The encounter lasted less then 20 seconds before the hut warden lifted him off, gave him a gentle scolding, and put him back on the ground. During the week Sirocco would follow her from the hut when she went on walks, nipping at her legs. She asked the ranger why Sirocco was picking on her - did he just not like her?
"He said ‘no, actually, he really likes you'," she remembers. While she was one of several female volunteers, Sirocco seemed to have taken a special liking to her, following her any time she left the hut. She wasn't sure why she was so fetching to the kakapo - "Maybe he just likes blondes."
Ell says one of the biggest challenges of the book project was tackling Sirocco's famous sexual urges - which was highly publicised and unavoidable now - and framing it in a slightly more sanitised, child-friendly way.
"It's breeding behaviour . . . but I worked on phrasing mating in terms of ‘starting a family' and ‘companionship'."
Ell also wanted Sirocco's life to be interesting to children but respectful of their curiosity and intelligence. Sirocco was, after all, a wild creature.
"The challenge of this was to tell his story without being anthropomorphic," she said. "He's not actually tame, as such. He doesn't do tricks."
Sirocco's antics became less amusing when someone finally panicked getting him off their head, dislocating Sirocco's leg in the process.
News of "behavioural issues" with a rare New Zealand bird travelled through the conservation world to Texas, where American parrot trainer Barbara Heidenreich read about Sirocco's friskiness and got in touch to offer her services.
"It was an interesting problem to address," she remembers. A rich diet from an abundance of rimu and beech tree had much to do with his increase in testosterone levels; the hormonal increase in turn caused Sirocco to develop a sometimes uncomfortably "mate-like relationship" with whoever - or whatever - was around.
"We [couldn't] reduce the hormones," Heidenreich says, "but there was different behaviour he could do besides mounting somebody's head - so we trained him to copulate with an owl puppet."
The problem, she says, was Sirocco's longevity: "Nobody can hold a puppet for 40 minutes."
A Croc shoe then became the doggie treat for good behaviour.
"He has to climb on a stump and if he waits we offer him a croc . . . it is like a food treat I guess. He's picked it up really fast."
Getting him stationary on a log and waiting politely for his "treat" had to be reinforced with food, she says, and he "hasn't put it altogether yet" with cues, but he's on the right track.
When she left last year, after just a few weeks of training, she was pleased with his improvement.
Back in Texas, she has been giving talks on Sirocco and raising awareness of the Kakapo Recovery programme in the US.
Heidenreich is returning next month to continue working with Sirocco, and polish up the work she started with him.
"I'm interested in helping the project in any way I can."
Kakapo Recovery Programme manager Scott says when the Texan parrot trainer first got in touch with them, they were a little sceptical.
"We were all a bit wary - ‘behavioural enrichment?' - what's this going to be like?" But to their surprise, Heidenreich's work not just with Sirocco, but with his caretakers - "so we were all giving a consistent message," Scott says - actually worked in the short amount of time the trainer was there.
"He's a much calmer bird now," she says. "And he's loving his tour of duty."
Scott says she wasn't there when Sirocco's same antics were infamously caught on film in 2009 by actor Stephen Fry and zoologist Mark Carwardine but she was in the helicopter that dropped them off and then picked them up again.
They definitely knew what they'd caught on film was pretty golden, she remembers.
"They were fizzing when they came off the island," she remembers. "If we'd seen it beforehand we might have been nervous."
It may have been initially quite horrifying to see what looked like a PR disaster - but the effects were undeniably positive.
"It shot Sirocco to fame . . . and it catapulted the species into the spotlight."
Last Chance to See - a combined presentation Carwardine and Fry - was a series on the world's rarest creatures that made a stopover on Codfish Island to visit Sirocco.
Carwardine details the encounter in his book by the same title, as an attack that actually made him bleed.
". . .he climbed up my leg, using his beak and claws like mountaineers use axes and crampons . . . and finally was rocking backwards and forwards on my head like a mentally retarded dachshund . . ."
Fry, meanwhile, was laughing hysterically from a safe distance, shouting "take one for the team", Carwardine says.
At some point blood was spotted - Sirocco ripped a mole off Carwardine, pierced one of his ears and scratched his cheek - and filming was stopped as Sirocco was disengaged by a DOC worker.
Carwardine describes the moments after as "four grown men running away from an endangered parrot the size of a chicken".
The clip of that incident was put on YouTube and got more than 3 million hits.
Now whenever Scott sees large levels of donations coming from one particular company, she says her first thought is "have they just screened the BBC clip there?"
A Kakapo Recovery Programme Facebook page has also been set up to promote Sirocco and the programme, but nothing really beats seeing him live.
When he goes from the Maud Island bush to his bush-assimilated stage for his "tour" he gets the full star treatment from Alisha Sherriff, a DOC ranger, now on her second tour with Sirocco .
"He can be a bit of a character," she says. But she doesn't put up with any of his antics: "We're not encouraging that kind of behaviour."
When asked to describe her charge, she lists a few of his attributes: "Mischievous, always looking for trouble. He's charming, endearing . . ."
One of the joys is seeing people's reactions when they come up to the glass: "people are beaming as soon as they see him."
Most of the questions people ask, she says, are thankfully not sex related, "as that tends to get complicated, without using crude language . . . it's just not worth going down that road".
She became part of the team in 2009 and says being part of Sirocco's entourage 24-7, feeding him grapes and pine nuts and answering tame questions like "do you cut his toenails?" is "a dream job".
(And no, Sirocco's toenails are untouched because he needs them for climbing and foraging, she says).
Eason - who will welcome Sirocco back to Maud Island after his touring season finishes on October 8 - says Sirocco's appeal has a lot to do with his charisma, but some of it is the nature of the species. "The kakapo are very visually appealing - their face, plumage . . . weird behaviour, the anomalies - it all stacks up. They're nocturnal, so we don't know as much as we'd like to about their behaviour. It's nice to have a species that is a bit mysterious."
Sirocco might be living the high life in the public limelight, but the kakapo is usually a solitary bird. Eason says like many celebrities, there is more to him then just a viral YouTube clip.
"Everybody knows about the head-humping . . . but he really is a different persona then what you see on the internet."
Though Eason wonders if Sirocco could actually be a pointer to what kakapo used to be like, before their numbers dwindled.
"They are relatively solitary [now] but it could be that they've lost some of their own culture as their population became scarce. They might be picking some of [those traits] again, especially as the density gets higher. They do loosely congregate every so often."
On an encouraging note, a promising breeding season is ahead of the team this year, he says.
For Ell, one of the great things about writing a book like this for young people is that they seem to have an immediate reaction when a species is threatened.
"Kids respond in a serious way to [extinction]. Children aren't blase about something being lost forever."
With a book, a Facebook page, and a worldwide fan base, Sirocco, now 15, is in "a really nice summer of his life" Scott says.
While Ell's book captures his life so far, she doesn't believe its the last chapter. "Its a story we're pretty confident will continue."
He has his own seat on an aeroplane, a Facebook page, and more than 12,000 Facebook fans who hear from him daily, so we couldn't do an article on Sirocco without talking to the star himself.
We put a few questions to the kakapo this week to get his perspective on the book (thanks Kakapo recovery programme team for chatting him up for us):
So how does it feel to have a book written about your life so far? Are you happy with how it turned out? Does it capture the "real" Sirocco?
All going well, this book will be the first in an ongoing series – given kakapo can live 80 or more years I reckon there's the potential for at least another five – depending on what I get "up” to. I think Sarah Ell has captured my essence and charm so well and given an insight into the people and programme behind my amazingness.
What's been the best part about your 2012 touring season? Are you enjoying it as much as last season?
Are there highs and lows for you? My visiting Maungatautari has been fabulous for the sanctuary because I am such a drawcard obviously. Who wouldn't want to meet me? The highs have, of course, been the Air New Zealand flights and the children who have been to see me – I love watching the adoration for me on their faces. I've had my season there extended because I've been so popular and I love it all . . .
Do you see yourself ever finding true love and settling down? Does life on the road ever get lonely?
Hey, I'm a kakapo – we are solitary birds. That's why I lurrrve going on the road! As for settling down . . . um, male kakapo don't ever do that – we're into sharing ourselves with, well, anything that's moving – or not.
What's the first thing you're going to do when you get home to Maud Island when the season's finished?
I'll probably spend some time chillin' out in quarantine, making sure I haven't picked up any nasties from the mainland.
What's the best part about being Sirocco the rock star Kakapo?
My adoring fans and the chance to be the ambassador for the Kakapo Recovery programme – but really, who else were they gonna pick?
The Southland Times