The fungal disease aspergillosis has caused the deaths of three kākāpō chicks in the past week. This is in addition to an adult kākāpō which died from the same disease just over two weeks ago.
The fearsome fungus has the Department of Conservation’s Kākāpō Recovery Team and wildlife vets around the world scrambling to understand what is causing the outbreak, which is unprecedented for the rare parrot.
A further chick and two adult males have also died from other causes in the past fortnight, dropping the kākāpō population to 144 adults and 73 living chicks.
Five kākāpō are currently at Auckland Zoo for investigation and treatment for possible aspergillosis. These include the adult female Weheruatanga-o-te-po and the chick Awarua-3-A.
Auckland Zoo vets carried out CT scans on four of these birds yesterday and are currently waiting for a veterinary radiology specialist in the United States to read the scans.
Auckland Zoo vet Dr James Chatterton, from the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine, says that spores of the aspergillus fungus are ubiquitous in the environment, and only become a problem in stressed and immunocompromised animals.
However, the number of chicks succumbing to the disease after sharing a nest with other infected birds is causing alarm amongst wildlife vets and the Kākāpō Conservation team.
The problem is confined to Whenua Hou Island. There were initial concerns that artificial nest boxes might be contributing to the problem, but it is most prevalent in natural nest cavities.
The adult female Hoki was the first kākāpō to succumb to the disease. Since then, three chicks have also died from aspergillosis: Bella-2-A, Tumeke-4-A and Queenie-4-A.
Daryl Eason says all three chicks “were looking very good until very close to death, and they’ve all died from aspergillosis.”
Aspergillosis is a very difficult disease to treat, says James Chatterton.
“One of the many frustrating problems when we’re dealing with fungal infections in birds, is that often by the time the bird shows that it’s sick, so by the time it looks lethargic and it’s got breathing problems, often by then it’s far too late to actually cure it,” says James.
“And diagnosing it before the bird looks sick is extremely difficult.”
Chick Waikawa-4-B also died this week, and Daryl says her death was not due to aspergillosis and “was an absolute mystery.”
The adult male Arab has died from surgical complications and Gumboots was found dead after becoming stuck in a tree on Whenua Hou.
A sixth chick is being treated for a non-aspergillosis respiratory problem at Auckland Zoo.
Dr Lisa Argilla, at the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital, is looking after two surgical cases. Esperance-1-B, who Lisa says is now nicknamed Espie or Einstein, is recovering well following pioneering brain surgery two weeks ago.
Queenie-3-A was due to be operated on today to reset a broken leg which has healed badly.
Reminiscing on kākāpō in the 1890s
This episode of the Kākāpō Files includes an archive recording from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision.
It features mountaineer Arthur (AP) Harper, recorded in 1949, reminiscing about working with explorer Charlie Douglas in South Westland in the 1890s. He recollects the strange behaviours of kākāpō, their abundance and subsequent decline following the arrival of stoats, and remembers enjoying kākāpō fat as an ingredient in scones.
Find out more
If you would like to know more about kākāpō you can follow the Kākāpō Recovery Programme on Facebook and Instagram. Kākāpō scientist Andrew Digby and Kākāpō Files producer Alison Ballance are on Twitter.
Find the full kākāpō story in the book Kākāpō – rescued from the brink of extinction by Alison Ballance (2018).
Update 18 May
One adult and four chicks that were given CT scans earlier this week are all infected with aspergillosis.
A further six birds have been sent to Auckland Zoo from Whenua Hou to be scanned following elevated white blood cell counts.