‘Some days this job is pretty special’ says QEII Southland Rep Jesse Bythell as she looks down at 5 plucky little kākāpo chicks, including the two oldest ones Tōmua and Kohitātea, pictured above.

Jesse has been working with QEII covenantors in Southland to collect much needed native fruits to help feed some of the kākāpō chicks that are being raised by the Department of Conservation.

DOC says this year’s kākāpō breeding season has broken all records with over 230 eggs laid, which was much more expected.   Thirty-four chicks are in the wild, with mothers in nests on both Whenua Hou / Codfish Island and on Anchor Island. 23 chicks remained in a hand-rearing facility in Invercargill, with more and more being released as they grow.

Jesse says it’s a good season for native fruits, so when DOC asked for support to keep these wee chicks fed, she knew exactly where to go.

“One of the key things DOC wanted was podocarp fruit, ideally rimu or kahikatea. These trees are very important for the kākāpō breeding cycle and contain important nutrients for growing chicks. The food source is also important to adult birds who lose a lot of weight during the breeding season. I learned from Sara Laracombe, a DOC ranger who is a kākāpō expert, that adult birds can eat 3 rimu fruits per second when they’re clambering among the branches feeding – that’s some serious scoffing!”

Podocarps are slow growing trees so the best place to find them is old growth forest. However, unlike the predator free offshore islands where most kākāpō live, there is not much old growth forest around Invercargill, so getting the right sort of fruit was a bit harder.

Luckily, Jesse had observed heavy coning of kahikatea trees in several covenants she visited in spring, so she asked the landowners if they’d be comfortable with some fruit being collected for kākāpō chicks. Jesse’s requests were met with a resounding ‘Yes!’, with landowners being very keen to help feed the chicks.

Jesse with the help of QEII Solicitor Malcolm, collected ripe kahikatea fruit which had fallen on the forest floor fruit in the covenant of Brian and Christine Rance, along with a good collection of cabbage tree heads for the kākāpō chicks to feast on later.

“It was ‘all hands to the pump’ collecting fruit off the ground and searching in the gloom of the deep forest amongst the ferns. It gave us some insight and sympathy for mother kakapo and how labour-intensive foraging must be when they’re raising chicks. As I learned a kākāpō mother can collect up to 500g of fruit in their crops at a time to feed to their hungry babies” says Jesse.

Luck would have it that QEII Solicitor Malcolm was in the area on holiday and he was keen to get involved. “It’s great to think that these plants that have thrived through the protection that they have by landowners placing covenants on their land and in turn they are going on to feed a critically endangered species like these baby kākāpō. It’s something that is rewarding for both QEII and landowners. Plus, there’s no denying that the birds are adorable. It was a really special day.” Malcom says.

However, collecting fruit from the forest floor was not very efficient and climbing the trees would have required specialised skills. Luckily Jesse knew of another covenant, Matai Farm, not far from Invercargill, which was home to right trees, and had branches which were close enough to reach, important as the kahikatea is a very tall tree.

“Matai Farm staff were great about letting me collect fruit, and the manager would have even come and pitched in to help me out, but he was away at the time that we needed to collect the fruit” Jesse says.

When collecting, Jesse focused on the kākāpō’s favorite’s “I mostly got loads of kahikatea fruit, but also some miro and a little bit of other native plant berries for variety such as peppertree and weeping mapou.”

“We really have to thank the landowners for letting us collect fruit for these kākāpō chicks to feed on. It’s great to have access to this important food source and the whole experience reinforced how interrelated our native plant and animals are” says Jesse.

“It also shows us that our birdlife was once much more widespread. kākāpō were once found across New Zealand, and only remained in remote areas of Southland such as Fiordland and Stewart Island. I don’t know when kākāpō disappeared from around Invercargill, but I imagine it has been many centuries since they fed on kahikatea from the Southland Plains. It’s possible that some of the ancient trees we collected fruit from were alive when kākāpō were still residents of the forest that once covered most of the region. We managed to collect a couple of big boxes of fruits which should keep these chicks going for a while!”