With a savvy social media presence, caretakers of the endangered parrots have created an utterly delightful, conservation-focused corner of the web.
Soon, the Kākāpō of New Zealand will have a little extra motivation when it’s time to mate. That’s because, thanks to a recent competition, some of these large, flightless, long-lived parrots will be treated to a special saxophone-laden soundtrack. The composer behind the mood music will be the winner of a recent search to find the next Kenny G. of Kākāpō smooth jazz.
Of course, there’s no evidence that critically endangered Kākāpō, which breed in leks every two to three years, find saxophone music particularly romantic. For the Kākāpō Recovery team and its partner in the project Meridian Energy, the campaign was more about raising awareness than coming up with a serious conservation strategy. But the search points to a larger truth about the Kakapo conservation effort: It’s as good at getting the word out about the Kākāpō as it is at working to save them.
Kākāpō, the heaviest parrots in the world, need all the help they can get. The birds evolved without natural mammalian predators, making them easy targets for the cats, rats, and stoats that arrived with European settlers hundreds of years ago. Kākāpō were nearly wiped out by these invaders, but in the mid-1990s, when the population hovered around 51 birds, New Zealand’s Kākāpō Recovery Program was formed to help bring these birds back from the brink.
The birds’ first big social media break came in 2009, when the internet met Sirocco, a 21-year-old Kākāpō who went viral for, in the words of the BBC television hosts, “shagging” zoologist Mark Carwardine while filming a documentary on the species (remember his name). The video of Sirocco wildly beating his wings against Carwardine’s head launched the bird’s career: In 2010, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key appointed Sirocco the country’s first Spokesbird for Conservation.
Since then, Sirocco’s fame has only grown. He’s gone on trips around the country to educate the public about Kākāpō, even making it to New Zealand’s parliament. His Facebook page has over 220,000 followers and, along with his Twitter account, is a wholesome little corner of bird joy on the internet. Part of the charm in following Sirocco can be attributed to Kākāpō themselves: They’re fat, fluffy, slow, and have an adorable weirdo persona that’s perfect for the internet.
Andrew Digby, a scientific advisor for Kākāpō Recovery, also tweets about Kākāpō conservation efforts on his personal Twitter. Digby, who has been with the program for five years, says the focus on public communication is critical for saving the Kākāpō. The recovery program relies heavily on donations and symbolic adoptions for funding, which have both gone up over the last few years. It’s also important for garnering knowledge from breeding experts outside the team, and for introducing new audiences to the birds and the importance of conservation.
“They look a little bit like grumpy old men,” Digby says. “When you see this big bird lumbering across the forest floor, it looks like no other bird you know.”...