His name is Sirocco and he is the champion bird for the New Zealand Kākāpō Recovery programme, seemingly melting the hearts of all who meet him.
Sirocco had an uncertain start to life, suffering a respiratory illness at three weeks old while being raised by his mother, Zephyr.
During one routine visit to the nest rangers discovered he was having respiratory problems. As a result, Sirocco was moved to the hut for treatment, becoming the first ever male kākāpō to be hand-raised.
Kākāpō chicks put on most of their adult weight during the first few months and by mid May Sirocco was doing well, already weighing more than 3.3lbs (1.5 kgs) at 52 days old. He was eventually deemed fit and ready to survive on his own, released to roam the island in late November the same year.
But the call of the wild wasn’t so loud for Sirocco. It soon became apparent that, as a result of the intensive hand-raising and lack of kākāpō company, he had been imprinted on humans.
As a result, the Kākāpō Recovery team realised he was unlikely to be an effective breeding bird, but instead an extremely good advocate for his species, providing the best opportunity for people to meet a live kākāpō.
Sirocco remains a wild bird in that he does not live in captivity, but he has visited several places in the last few years – on tour as ambassador for his species.
He had several short-term stints in captivity between 2005 and 2009 on Ulva Island, a Stewart Island bird sanctuary and also at Auckland Zoo, where he went on display to the public. From the start, he proved to be an ideal bird for kākāpō advocacy and seemed to thrive on all the attention.
But it was a unique encounter with zoologist Mark Carwardine, who was filming a BBC documentary with British actor Stephen Fry, which rocketed Sirocco into the global spotlight. Footage from the program Last Chance to See which showed a rather ‘frisky’ Sirocco attempting to mate Carwardine’s head was posted on YouTube and the kākāpō star was born.
Two years later Sirocco began touring New Zealand – his first visit during September 2011 at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary, near Dunedin, followed by a stay at ZEALANDIA, in Wellington. There, 2000 people had prebooked tickets to see Sirocco ahead of his arrival in the city on a commercial flight. Sirocco was transported in a specially-designed and decorated box, complete with a viewing window.
In 2012, Sirocco was hosted at Maungatautari, near Hamilton.
For the hosts, the chance to display Sirocco is a huge commitment. Much work has to be done (and money spent) to ensure his health and wellbeing is not compromised. That includes strict rules about where and how Sirocco is housed, how he is handled, fed and by whom. Regular health checks and a designated “minder” ensure that Sirocco remains as well cared for as any celebrity would.
To help Sirocco enjoy his experience more, Kākāpō Recovery has enlisted the help of animal training expert Barbara Heidenreich who is working on aspects of his behaviour, on an ongoing basis.