Chattering classes

 A retired teacher is helping to increase numbers of rare native käkäriki by breeding them in his garden aviary. By Sophie Bond.

Kakariki breeder, John Staniland. Photo: Crispin Anderlini

Kakariki breeder, John Staniland. Photo: Crispin Anderlini

From John and Karen Staniland’s dining room window you can look down the bush-covered hillside and catch a glimpse of the Tasman Sea. Here in the back blocks of Henderson, at the end of a long and windy gravel road, the Stanilands have created a bird haven.

Their 4.5-hectare West Auckland property backs on to the second-largest Forest & Bird reserve in the country, Matuku, where John – a retired teacher – is the ranger. The Stanilands keep things bird-friendly by controlling pests and providing plenty of water, but there’s one species that gets special attention.

A chorus of soft trills guides us to the aviary, where four yellow-crowned käkäriki are chattering together in a very endearing manner. Käkäriki, or the New Zealand parakeet, is the only native bird species able to be bred and held in captivity. 

John has two males and two females here in his immaculate aviary, nestled in bush full of birdsong.

Thirty-three years ago John founded the Waitäkere branch of Forest & Bird and today two fellow members and good mates, Paul Dixon and Chris Bindon, join us in the garden. They’re käkäriki owners, too, and can’t say enough good things about the little red-eyed parakeets with their bright green plumage and melodic trill.

“Keeping käkäriki is a great opportunity for people with an interest in birds to get involved at a conservation level," says Paul, who joined Forest & Bird three years ago. “Some people don’t even know käkäriki exist in New Zealand. They just know the word because it means ‘green’. They are such beautiful, pleasant birds with a lovely sound.”

Chris, who, like John, has a Forest & Bird Old Blue award, works for Auckland Council’s Project Twin Streams.

His real expertise is in New Zealand waterfowl but he has a soft spot for käkäriki. “Lately I’ve been watching mine courtship-feed,” he says. “It’s lovely. The male feeds the female regurgitated food. It’s a bonding thing – bird kissing.

When the female is incubating eggs he’ll feed her too.” I mention that I may have seen a pair of käkäriki in my street but John gently corrects me. “You probably saw them flying away from you and caught a glimpse of green tail feathers, right? It would have been the Australian eastern rosella, which has similar colouring on the back but much more colour around the head and chest.”

The men keep yellow-crowned käkäriki, which, though rare, can be found in larger forested areas throughout New Zealand. The red-crowned käkäriki is also popular with breeders but very rare on the mainland, with predator-free islands such as Tiritiri Matangi the most likely place to catch a glimpse.

There are three further species of käkäriki. The Forbes’ parakeet is found only on Mängere Island in the Chatham Islands, and the Antipodes Island parakeet is only on the sub-Antarctic Antipodes Islands. The orange-fronted parakeet has a high risk of extinction, with only 100 to 200 birds living in the wild in Canterbury beech forests.

Releasing captive käkäriki into the wild is not allowed but the men are excited by moves to introduce käkäriki to Auckland’s Ark in the Park. The Ark, a collaborative conservation project founded by Forest & Bird and the former Auckland Regional Council, is just four kilometres from John’s house as the käkäriki flies and is already home to birds such as tomtits, kökako and North Island robins.

“We’re negotiating with DOC now for a release of captive-bred käkäriki into this predator-controlled park in the foreseeable future,” says John. “We think they will have a good chance of surviving.”

Paul says this is an exciting time for those keeping käkäriki in captivity. “The fact these birds may one day be transitioned [into the wild] gives a real sense of purpose.”

The men stress that keeping käkäriki requires a permit from the Department of Conservation, and owners must keep a log of any sales or purchases and a record of the birds’ breeding. The birds should be housed only with other käkäriki.

As their name suggests, käkäriki are mainly green but up close you can see their vivid blue wing edges and the splash of red on their flanks. The yellow-crowned species has a patch of yellow on its head and a small strip of red above the beak.

Male käkäriki are slightly larger than the females and have bigger bills. In captivity, käkäriki will breed all year round, and John shows me a nesting box he’s preparing to install in the aviary. “They need a cavity to nest in but that’s a serious disadvantage in the wild because the female can get trapped in the nest by a predator. The invasion of pests and the destruction of our forests has led to their decline,” he says.

The three men all feed their käkäriki slightly different diets, but include apple, kiwifruit, citrus, celery leaves, birdseed mix, sunflower seeds, dried cuttlefish, peas and corn. In the aviary, the käkäriki provide plenty of entertainment as they flit from one end to the other. They pause to chew bark on a branch of lacebark, or pluck a mänuka seed capsule with a foot and eat it one-legged. 

Top tips for keeping kakariki 

1 Keeping käkäriki in captivity requires a permit. Download an application form from www.doc.govt.nz

2 Buy birds from another permitted breeder or a specialist pet shop. Two is a good number to start with.

3 Build an aviary to DOC specifications. It needs to include shelter and be predator proof.

4 Set a bait station near your aviary and check it regularly. Käkäriki are particularly vulnerable to rats and stoats.

5 Provide several containers of water for your birds and change them often. Käkäriki enjoy bathing so make sure one container is large, shallow and low to the ground. 

6 Feed your käkäriki fresh fruits and vegetables and a variety of seeds. This could include parakeet/cockatiel mix

7 Put some branches in the aviary, as these serve as perches and a snack. Käkäriki enjoy eating mänuka

seed capsules and chewing on the leaves and flowers of pühä and the leaf bases and fruits of coprosma.

8 Keep the aviary clean to help the birds stay healthy. Clear droppings regularly, especially from water and food containers. Aviary disinfectant is available from pet shops.

9 If a bird is fluffed up, moving slowly, bobbing on a perch or huddled on the ground, it is unwell and should be taken to a vet.

10 Käkäriki are cavity breeders so provide a parakeet nesting box (available from pet stores) with fresh hay in the bottom.