Parakeets or kākāriki (little kākā) are slender green parrots with long tails. Like other parrots, they have broad, curved beaks and are zygodactyl – they have two toes pointing forward and two backwards. The ancestor of New Zealand’s kākāriki species came from New Caledonia within the last 500,000 years, and evolved into six species spread between the subtropical Kermadec Islands and the subantarctic islands. All are now endemic – found only in New Zealand. They belong to the Cyanoramphus genus, which also includes other South Pacific parakeets.
Kākāriki make a chattering call as they fly and while feeding. They often hold food up to their mouth with one claw. In autumn and winter they search for food in flocks, but are more solitary during the breeding season.
The Māori saying ‘ko te rua porete hai whakarite’, meaning ‘just like a nest of kākāriki’, was used to describe a group of people gossiping excitedly.
The Antipodes Island parakeet is the largest. Males measure 32 centimetres from head to tail and weigh 130 grams. The smallest is the yellow-crowned parakeet. It is shorter – males are 25 centimetres long, females 23 centimetres – and much slighter. Males weigh just 50 grams and females 40 grams. The other parakeet species are within this range.
Parakeets were reasonably common when European settlers arrived in the 1840s, and were shot for feathers to fill pillows. Now they are legally protected, but introduced rats, cats and stoats have taken a heavy toll. None are common, having disappeared from much of their former range. Two mainland species – the red-crowned and yellow-crowned parakeet – are also quite abundant on some predator-free islands, and the orange-fronted parakeet has been moved to others.
Red-crowned parakeets (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae) are green, with red from bill to crown, a thin red band past each eye and small red flank patches. They mainly eat the seeds of beech, tussock and flax, as well as fruits, flowers, leaves, shoots and invertebrates. They nest in trunks or crevices and burrows, laying about seven white eggs.
Feeding and nesting close to the ground means they are very vulnerable to predators. They are now absent from most of the South Island, and sparse in larger forested areas of the Ruahine Range, central North Island, and Northland. They are still doing well on stoat-free Stewart Island and some smaller islands as far south as the Auckland Islands. Separate subspecies are found on the Kermadec and Chatham islands.
Yellow-crowned parakeets (Cyanoramphus auriceps) are green, with yellow feathers on the crown meeting a red band above the bill. They live in conifer–broadleaf and beech forest as well as scrub, in both the North and South islands. They mainly feed in the treetops, eating scale insects, leaf miners and aphids, the buds or flowers of kānuka, rātā and beech, and beech seeds. They usually nest in holes in old trees, laying five or more white eggs. Some remain in South Island native forests and the larger forests of the central North Island. On the mainland they are more widespread and common than red-crowned parakeets, but on most predator-free islands the red-crowned species dominates.
The least common species is the orange-fronted parakeet (Cyanoramphus malherbi), which is green with a yellow crown meeting orange above the bill. It once lived in the South Island, on Stewart Island and as far north as Hen (Taranga) Island, but is now only found in a few North Canterbury valleys of the Southern Alps.
In 2001, its population – already low at 700 – fell below 200 when a bumper crop of beech seed (its main food) triggered a huge increase in the number of rats, which prey on the eggs and chicks. Intensive efforts to prevent extinction were made: better predator control, cross-fostering eggs to other birds, and moving some birds to predator-free islands in Fiordland (Chalky Island), the Marlborough Sounds (Maud and Blumine islands) and Tūhua (Mayor Island) off the coast of Tauranga. In 2020 there were about 300 orange-fronted parakeets in North Canterbury.
Offshore island parakeets
The mainland red- and yellow-crowned parakeets occur at sites as distant from New Zealand as the Auckland Islands. A subspecies of red-crowned parakeet is found in the Kermadec island group, and another on the Chatham Islands.
The Chatham Islands have a local endemic species, Forbes’ parakeet (Cyanoramphus forbesi). Subantarctic Antipodes Island has two – the all-green Antipodes Island parakeet (Cyanoramphus unicolor) and the red-crowned Reischek’s parakeet (Cyanoramphus hochstetteri). Both live in a treeless habitat, nesting in metre-deep burrows at the base of tussock clumps. They feed on tussock leaves, seeds and other plant material. The Antipodes Island parakeet scavenges fat from dead chicks at penguin colonies, and sometimes seeks out and kills storm petrel chicks in their burrows.