Thirty kākāpō in hospital as fungus decimates population

Kākāpō chick Nora-1-A has just been diagnosed with severe aspergillosis, which causes fungal pneumonia and led to the death of her foster mother, Huhana. - Photo: Andrew Digby / DOC

Conservationists who've spent decades protecting critically endangered kākāpō couldn't have asked for a better start to 2019.

Rimu produced an abundance of fruit and for kākāpō, New Zealand's chubby jesters of the forest, rimu berries are like Viagra.

Not even the most optimistic could have imagined just how amorous the flightless green parrot would become; an astonishing 86 chicks were hatched, bumping the total population up by 50 percent.

For 30 of the critically endangered birds to now be in hospital - some, fighting for their lives - is a devastating blow.

"It's a significant chunk of the population really, and it's the first time in living memory that number of birds has been on mainland New Zealand, away from their offshore islands," said the Department of Conservation's kākāpō recovery team manager Deidre Vercoe.

Ten of the birds have been confirmed to have the severe fungal infection aspergillosis, which has already killed six birds.

Others are considered to be at high risk and are being tested for the fungus.

"It's been quite hard with the birds that you know. Like when Hoki died it was really difficult. She was 27 years old and she was known by so many people who worked with the programme. She was a staunch bird, she demanded your respect and everyone loved her. She was a real character."

The latest kākāpō to die was Huhana, who was a foster mother to Nora 1-A.

An Auckland Zoo vet monitors a kākāpō undergoing a CT scan during an investigation into whether it is suffering from aspergillosis.

An Auckland Zoo vet monitors a kākāpō undergoing a CT scan during an investigation into whether it is suffering from aspergillosis. Photo: Auckland Zoo / Lydia Uddstrom

Nora's test results have also just come back for severe aspergillosis.

"I got sent a video of her and she looks really lively and inquisitive but apparently it's quite severe. That's the thing with aspergillosis, it is extremely difficult to detect and you would not know it to look at them."

Not all the birds in care actually have aspergillosis. Espy-1B is recovering from a world-first brain surgery, Merv's getting treatment for suspected cataracts and another chick has a broken leg.

Ms Vercoe said the kākāpō were being kept with other birds from their respective islands and following strict quarantine procedures.

"They're all being treated with anti-fungus twice a day so it's just a period of wait and see, really. It'll be six to eight weeks before we know how they're responding, so we're in this for the long haul."

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 for wildlife vets and the conservation team.

"We may just have a higher concentration of aspergillosis in the nests this year because, I don't know, potentially it's been more humid, warmer. We really want to understand this better."

There are now 142 adult kākāpō and 73 chicks left in the world.