Antipodes Island parakeet

Cyanoramphus unicolor (Lear, 1831)

Order: Psittaciformes

Family: Psittacidae

New Zealand status: Endemic

Conservation status: Naturally Uncommon

Other names: green parakeet, uniform parakeet

Geographical variation: Nil

Antipodes Island parakeet. Adult. Antipodes Island, February 2011. Image © David Boyle by David Boyle

Antipodes Island parakeet. Adult. Antipodes Island, February 2011. Image © David Boyle by David Boyle

The Antipodes Island parakeet has one of the most unlikely back stories of any New Zealand bird. It was named by the artist, illustrator and poet Edward Lear (1812-1888), who is now most well-known for his nonsense poems, including The Owl and the Pussycat. Lear’s first publication, at the age of 19, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots. This compendium of 42 lithographic plates of parrots, bound together as a limited edition book, was destined to become one of the most sought after (i.e. expensive) of all early bird books. In this volume, Lear illustrated and named a mysterious green parrot that was held at the London Zoo. No-one knew where the bird had come from, and it was another 55 years before Captain Fairchild of the New Zealand government steamer Stella solved the riddle, discovering that Lear’s ‘Platycercus unicolor Uniform Parrakeet’ came from the speck of land that is as far from London Zoo as it is possible to get – Antipodes Island!

The Antipodes Island parakeet is an unmistakable, uniformly green parakeet endemic to the subantarctic Antipodes Islands. It is much larger than the Reischek’s parakeets with which it shares this isolated island group. Leaves dominate its diet, but the species is noted for its habit of scavenging bird carcasses and broken eggs, and for killing and eating grey-backed storm petrels - joining the kea as New Zealand’s second occasionally predatory parrot.

Identification

The largest and most robust of all the Cyanoramphus parakeets, the Antipodes Island parakeet has uniformly green plumage that lacks the crown colouration typical of the rest of the genus. It has a very large bill and broad, rounded wings. Males are larger than females. Although capable of strong direct flight, Antipodes Island parakeets prefer to fly only short distances. They are inquisitive and often attracted to human activity.

Voice: the characteristic rapid Cyanoramphus parakeet chatter is distinctly deeper and louder kok-kok-kok-kok-kok. Also a variety of softer chatter calls.

Similar species: easily distinguished from the much smaller Reischek’s parakeets with which it shares its range. Reischek’s parakeets have a red crown and eye-stripe, and are much more likely to take flight when disturbed.

Distribution and habitat

Common throughout Antipodes Island, less frequent on smaller satellite islands, particularly in areas of tall dense tussocks and sedges, and where these occur on slopes and along streams.

Population

Antipodes Island parakeets are common on Antipodes Island and Bollons Island, with smaller numbers on Archway, Windward and Leeward Islands. Total population estimated at 2,000-3,000 birds. They are apparently less common than the co-occurring Reischek’s parakeets.

Threats and conservation

The Antipodes Island parakeet has a stable population and is common within its 2,000 ha range. The population is protected by the islands’ isolated location and status as a strict Nature Reserve, which limits human visits. There is no evidence for hybridisation with the smaller Reischek’s parakeet in the wild. They are thought to compete with introduced house mice for seeds. The feasibility of mouse eradication on the main Antipodes Island is currently being investigated. The biggest threat to long-term survival is the possible arrival of mammalian predators.

Antipodes Island parakeets were introduced to Kapiti Island (1907) and Stephens Island (1986). They had died out on Kapiti Island by 1923, and were removed from Stephens Island in 1989. There is a small and declining captive population in New Zealand. These captive birds have been known to hybridise with captive Reischek’s parakeets.

Breeding

Antipodes Island parakeets nest from October to March, using burrows up to one metre deep in fibrous peat or in tunnels (0.6 m long) within the dense matted bases of clumps of tall tussocks or ferns. The single nest found in the wild contained 5 eggs. Nest material was comprised of fern-scales and rootlets removed from the walls of the chamber. In captivity, the average clutch size is 5.6 eggs. Like all other Cyanoramphus parakeets, females are largely responsible for nest preparation, incubation, brooding and feeding of chicks until they are 10-14 days of age. During this period all her food is provided by her mate, who is much more assertive than other male Cyanoramphus parakeets. Prior to the chicks fledging, male birds take over most of the chick feeding, and are fed by their mates. Both parents feed fledglings until they are independent (a minimum of two weeks after fledging).

Behaviour and ecology

Antipodes Island parakeets are generally less abundant than Reischek’s parakeets in most habitats. They are sedentary, quiet and usually seen singly or as pairs or in small family groups. Significant differences in diet between the two parakeet species have been observed. Strong seasonal and annual dietary differences related to food availability are also apparent. Distinctive piles of chewed and crushed tussock and sedge leaves are readily observed in areas where these parakeets have been feeding.

This species is one of the few parrot species known to scavenge flesh from the carcasses of seabirds and broken eggs. They are also actively hunt and prey on nesting grey-backed storm petrels. This behaviour occurs immediately before the parakeet’s breeding season, and is thought to be a seasonally reliable additional source of protein.

Antipodes Island parakeets are strong fliers but prefer to walk about and climb over vegetation, especially when feeding. If disturbed these parakeets become extremely furtive (particularly male birds) and will quickly disappear into the surrounding vegetation. Extensive use is made of the available labyrinth of seabird tunnels and runways and they often reappear some distance away in unexpected directions. Like all Cyanoramphus parakeets, they like to bathe regularly and spend significant periods sitting and preening in warm sheltered sites. Few territorial disputes are seen.

Food

Antipodes Island parakeets display strong seasonal and interannual dietary preferences for leaves and seeds (especially those from Poa litorosa and Carex appressa) supplemented seasonally with flowers, seeds, berries, carrion and flesh from grey-backed storm petrels. Invertebrates are a minor component of the diet. The birds forage extensively on the ground.

Websites

http://terranature.org/parakeetantipodes.htm

http://www.nzbirds.com/birds/antipodesparakeet.html

References

Greene, T.C. 1999. Aspects of the ecology of Antipodes Island parakeet (Cyanoramphus unicolor) and Reischek’s parakeet (C. novaezelandiae hochstetteri) on Antipodes Island, October-November 1995. Notornis 46: 301-310.

Higgins, P.J. (ed.) 1999. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 4, parrots to dollarbird. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Oliver, W.R.B. 1955. New Zealand birds. 2nd edn. A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington.

Taylor, R.H. 1975. Some ideas on speciation in New Zealand parakeets. Notornis 22: 110-121.

Taylor, R.H. 1985. Status, habits and conservation of Cyanoramphus parakeets in the New Zealand region. ICBP Tech. Publ. 3: 195-211.

Recommended citation

Greene, T.C.; Miskelly, C.M. 2013. Antipodes Island parakeet. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz

Antipodes Island parakeet

Social structure
monogamous
Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Nest type
burrow
Nest description
Burrows in peat or within bases of thick vegetation.
Maximum number of successful broods
1
Clutch size (mean)
5.6 (captivity)
Mean egg dimensions (length)
27.1 mm
Mean egg dimensions (width)
23.2 mm
Egg colour
White
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Interval between eggs in a clutch
1-3 days in captivity days
Incubation behaviour
female only
Incubation length (mean)
24-28 days in captivity
Incubation length (min)
24 days
Incubation length (max)
28 days
Nestling type
altricial
Nestling period (mean)
39-42 days in captivity
Nestling period (min)
39 days
Nestling period (max)
42 days
Age at fledging (mean)
39-42 days in captivity
Age at fledging (min)
39 days
Age at fledging (max)
42 days
Age at independence (mean)
Approximately 50 days in captivity
Age at first breeding (typical)
1 year
Maximum longevity
Unknown
Maximum dispersal
Unknown