by Kathy Wolfe

The National Geographic Society estimates there are between 50 billion and 430 billion birds on Earth. This week, Tidbits focuses on a few of the rare and unusual ones.

New Zealand’s kakapo parrot is seriously endangered, with only 248 known birds in existence, found only on four small islands off the coast of New Zealand. The kakapo is the heaviest of all the parrot species, reaching 6.6 lbs. (3 kg) for males, with a length of 25 inches (64 cm). They have beautiful yellow-green plumage and large blue feet. These nocturnal birds are also known as owl parrots, with a face and eyes that resemble owls. Yet they are flightless, only using their wings for balance as they jump among branches. The kakapo might be the world’s longest-living bird, with reported lifespans of up to 100 years.

    Flamingos aren’t born with those beautiful pink, orange, or red feathers. Chicks are born gray or white, and won’t achieve the stunning plumage until they are nearing three years old. It’s only after a steady diet of foods rich in the pigment carotene, the same one that makes tomatoes red and carrots orange. Flamingos dine on shrimp, plankton, algae, and crustaceans, which all contribute to the bird’s colorful feathers. The flamingo is the national bird of the Bahamas.

• The Peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on Earth, capable of flying 240 miles per hour (390 km/hr). The fastest land animal, the cheetah, doesn’t even come close at 61 mph (98 km/hr). Even at top diving speed, the Peregrine can catch other birds, such as seagulls and pigeons, in midair, dropping into a steep rapid dive, gripping their prey with long black talons. They also feed on mice, rabbits, squirrels, fish, and snakes. Their vision is eight times better than that of humans, able to spot their prey at a distance of 1.85 miles (3 km). Peregrines aren’t rare, with an estimated world population of 140,000, found on every continent except Antarctica. They live everywhere, from the cold tundra to the desert, even on the bridges and skyscrapers of cities. Strangely enough, the female Peregrine is larger than the male. The bird’s average lifespan in the wild is 18 years. Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder was responsible for naming the peregrine falcon, writing about it in his book “Natural History,” around 77 AD. The name was derived from the Latin word for “wanderer.” (Pliny the Elder died while trying to rescue friends from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.)

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    The world’s rarest duck is the Madagascar Pochard, a diving duck that was believed to be extinct for over a decade. Then in 2006, after being declared extinct, a group of 20 Pochards was rediscovered feeding on an isolated volcanic lake in a remote area of northern Madagascar. A massive rescue and conservation effort was begun, and in 2018, 21 birds were released into the wild for the first time. Today, the estimated population is about 90 birds.

The kagu can only be found on the islands of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. While its feathers are pearl-gray, its legs and beak are bright orange, and its eyes are a brilliant red. It’s about the size of a chicken, but has quite large wings, unusual since they are flightless. The wings aren’t useless, as the kagu flaps its wings on the ground, feigning injury, in order to divert the attention of predators away from its offspring.    When the kagu needs to escape danger, it simply runs away quickly on its long legs. Kagu parents are monogamous and raise just one chick a year, with both parents feeding the chick until it’s 14 weeks old. The parents don’t get an empty nest for quite awhile – the baby stays in their territory for up to six years.

    Unlike the kagu, the baby Golden Pheasant is independent in just two weeks. This pheasant is native to central and southern China, and folks there believe it’s a sign of good luck and fortune to spot one. It’s also known as the rainbow pheasant for obvious reasons. The tuft of feathers on the crown of the male’s head is golden-yellow, with a bit of red at the tip. The chest is bright scarlet, while wing feathers are blue and red, with bright green feathers on their back. Its cape is an array of black and orange that covers all of the face, except for the bright yellow orbital skin around its eye. Its wattles are also bright yellow. Its throat, neck, chin, and underparts are a rusty tan. These 41-inch-long (105 cm) pheasants can fly, but they’re not very good at it, spending most of their time on the ground.   

      Most of those people who choose a parrot for a pet opt for a macaw, usually the blue and yellow or blue and red variety. These are the talkers with an uncanny ability for mimicking human speech. They are able to learn many different words, short phrases, and some even sing fragments of songs. Those who own parrots are in it for the long haul – they can live to be almost 70 years old!

    Lovebirds are actually a variety of African parrots, known for the strong bond they have with a monogamous mate. They’re tiny little parrots, about 7 inches (17.8 cm) long. There are nine different sub-species, but the most common is the peach-faced lovebird, a colorful creature with a yellow, green, and blue body and a peach-colored face. They’re able to mimic human speech, but rarely do. They’re more apt to imitate a household sound, like the doorbell or microwave beep.

      If you’ve seen the computer-animated movie “Rio,” you’re familiar with the endangered bird Spix’s Macaw. The film was the tale of the last pair of these birds in the world. This rare bird, endemic to Brazil, had been declared extinct in the wild, but a strenuous conservation effort resulted in 28 birds being released into the wild in 2022. This gray-headed blue parrot was first discovered in 1832, but not seen again until 1903. The next sighting was 1985, when five birds were counted. Two years later, just one male remained. “Rio,” songs, documentaries, and education programs brought the macaw into the public eye. There are an estimated 180 in captivity. The population increases slowly because the birds don’t reach mating age until four years old.