Andrew Digby and Sinbad (Photo: Supplied)
Andrew Digby and Sinbad (Photo: Supplied)

SocietyOctober 10, 2020

Andrew Digby, birdman

Andrew Digby and Sinbad (Photo: Supplied)
Andrew Digby and Sinbad (Photo: Supplied)

His commitment to kākāpō and takahē recovery is unrivalled, and it’s turned him into a bit of a social media star. Michelle Langstone talks to DOC science advisor Dr Andrew Digby on changing careers, his love for Twitter, and what it really takes to protect one of New Zealand’s most beloved birds.

I meet Andrew Digby twice: once over Zoom from his home in Invercargill where the Department of Conservation (DOC) scientist stands very far away from his computer, arms behind his back like he’s in a school assembly, and once in the flesh at Wellington’s Botanic Gardens where his shy demeanour and bashful smile makes me feel like I’ve flushed him out of hiding. It’s not unlike trying to interview a kākāpō or a takahē, the endangered birds he cares for. Down the Zoom line, and in person, Digby feels as if he’s just out of reach, engaged in work most of us are unlikely to ever experience. He’s the science advisor for the recovery programs of the birds, and his job is to gather and analyze data, communicate his findings to his team and the greater conservation community, and spend time on our remote islands monitoring birds.

Digby wasn’t always a conservationist. He arrived in New Zealand by way of love, and the weather. Born in Norfolk, UK, Digby had always loved nature. “Norwich is known for its birds and things. I definitely was brought up going to nature reserves lots with my parents, and learning the birds in the garden and all that sort of stuff. And I loved it, I really did, but it was never really an obvious career option, when I was growing up anyway.” Digby also loved the stars, and eventually became an astronomer, his work taking him to the US and to NASA, where he used its high-powered telescopes in his post-doc work looking for planets around the stars. He fell in love with a Kiwi while in New York, and followed her back to New Zealand where he got a job with Met Service. It would be the first of several times he moves his life around for a bird.

“I was living in Wellington, and I started going and spending quite a lot of time at Karori Sanctuary, doing volunteer work. The more I got involved, the more I thought ‘I really want to do this permanently. So I went to see lots of DOC scientists and asked what I needed to do to get their jobs. That’s when I decided to make a plunge and go back to university and study again, and retrain in conservation.” Digby looks slightly pained when he tells me this, and I don’t blame him – the study involved embarking on his second PhD. The relationship that brought him to New Zealand ended, but Digby forged on, completing his PhD on the little spotted kiwi. “Whistling in the Dark” is a study of the acoustic behaviours of our national mascot, and it’s work he’s been able to take with him to the kākāpō, famous for their sonic romancing, whose males scratch out bowls in the earth to amplify the booming calls they use to attract female birds.

Digby lived in Wellington, his “favourite city in New Zealand” for eight years before he scored the coveted job of science advisor for the kākāpō and takahē recovery programs. You can tell he still can’t quite believe the job is his – he comes over a bit flustered when he tells me: “I didn’t think I’d get it, because I didn’t have any experience with kākāpō or takahē! But it turns out that they didn’t actually want someone who had experience with those species, they were more interested in someone who had the analytical skills, and had some experience with endangered species work.” The job meant Digby was on the move again, this time to the less inviting deep south of Invercargill, but he sucked it up in order to be close to the birds. It’s from there he travels to our remote locations like Whenua Hou, west of Rakiura, Anchor Island in the Dusky Sounds, and the Murchison Mountains in Fiordland. There, the DOC teams care for the kākāpō, our critically endangered nocturnal parrot, and for the takahē, our prehistoric-looking flightless wonder.

In the last few years, Digby has found himself something of an accidental spokesperson for kākāpō recovery on Twitter. In the 2016 breeding season, he discovered that he wanted to share what the team was experiencing: “I wasn’t a big social media person, but I thought maybe I should start. I really wanted to talk about it, and it’s been amazing. I’ve actually loved being on Twitter. I like the fact that in real-time you can talk about stuff – all the bad stuff and all the good stuff.”

Talking about some of the “bad stuff”, like the outbreak of the fungal infection aspergillosis that’s deadly to kākāpō, which turned up in the 2019 bumper breeding season putting all the birds at risk and killing nine, put Digby in touch with scientists all over the world, who shared their expertise. His expression is one of amazement as he says: “I started tweeting about it, and suddenly all these people started contacting me saying ‘hey what about this.’ There are people who’ve been researching aspergillosis for the last 20 years, and have got a research group in Vancouver, or London, or Manchester, or the Netherlands, and they got in touch, and now we’re working with those people.” The kākāpō recovery team are hoping for another excellent breeding season in 2022 (2019 yielded a large number of chicks, and pushed kākāpō numbers above 200, the largest population count for the species in 70 years) but the threat of aspergillosis looms large, and Digby hopes that the hive mind he tapped into on Twitter might help them fight the disease if it rears its ugly head again. 

Twitter has also been an excellent fundraiser for the DOC team. During the aspergillosis outbreak, Digby tweeted they could use some financial support to combat the problems they were up against: “That caused a big hoo-ha, and we got a lot of money as a result of that, and it was really, really great!” Digby grins a wide, delighted smile, and then his face clouds over. “It was a little bit scary actually, just how one little tweet could do that. That’s the power of social media. You do have to be a little bit careful with that. You know – we can kick something off, so we have to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

If Digby so much as posts a photo of a kākāpō on Twitter, his likes and retweets go nuts. There’s a global hunger for our charismatic green parrot, and it’s not just from nature lovers. “There are a lot of artists, and a lot of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as well, for some reason! They like it whenever I tweet about the tech stuff. I’m really keen on gadgets and I quite like applying them to conservation.” Things get quite nerdy at this point, and it’s evident Digby is really into it, and so am I to be honest. One of the technical innovations developed was the sperm drone. Alongside the usual bird-on-bird mating in the wild, artificial insemination is employed to increase the genetic pool and numbers of the species. Time is crucial when you’re attempting to artificially inseminate kākāpō. Rangers need to catch the males and get a fresh sperm sample; that sample needs to be rushed to where the female has been caught and where it’s placed inside the bird as quickly as possible.

Utilising a drone to carry fresh semen to waiting females was an ingenious development, idealised by DOC’s Deidre Vercoe and employed for the first time in a trial in the 2019 breeding season. “It was a proof of concept, but it worked really well! [The drone] would go a couple of kilometres across a valley, a distance that would take an hour and a half to walk sometimes. It was about eight minutes in the drone.” The development of the sperm drone may have a real impact next breeding season when more drone operators will be employed to assist with the work. 

It’s astonishing to think of the technicalities of artificial intelligence (AI) for kākāpō reproduction, and both Digby and I end up in a giggling fit as he describes the madness of the breeding seasons and the mistakes made along the way. “It’s ludicrous! It’s completely ludicrous. When I first joined the team it was ‘oh my god this is crazy, this is so intensive.’ What are we doing? But the thing is, you get used to it.” There was a period between 2009-2019 where artificial insemination wasn’t working. It’s thought one of the possible reasons for the failure was that the birds were occasionally being inseminated in… erm… the wrong place. It appears kākāpō physiology is equally as unique as the parrot itself, and despite having experts in parrot AI travel to New Zealand to advise the team, success wasn’t forthcoming. 

Digby says the many technical factors involved make artificial insemination a minefield, but he’s “confident we cracked it last year”. He’s beaming when he tells me this, and it’s the first time I feel like I can really see him. He’s a private man, but talking about his work brings him alive and shining. He admits he’d always rather be out on the islands among the birds, not in an office dealing with the people and paperwork that comes with working in a government department.

Dr Andrew Digby (Photo: Supplied)

Digby describes the magic of being out there on Whenua Hou in the dark with the birds: “The best thing is to try to spend your nights at a nest so you’re camping, and it’s just you and the kākāpō, and about a million seabirds. We keep the tent about 60 metres away [from the nest], so we’re not near the nesting female, but there will be other kākāpō around, and sometimes when you’re up on the top of the island, there’ll be all the males booming around you … and it’s hard to sleep there’s so much noise going on. It’s pretty incredible!” 

It sounds romantic and wild, but keeping up with mother birds means keeping odd hours. Every kākāpō nest has an infrared sensor across its entrance that makes a chime when a mother leaves. This enables rangers to go in and check on eggs and chicks. “It’s kind of infamous in the kākāpō team, because it goes ‘DING DONG’ and you get woken up by that so many times in the middle of the night. It makes you jump when you hear it, and you’ll be haunted with it for the rest of your life!” 

During breeding season, Digby and the team take shifts of about three weeks at a time, and are either choppered onto Whenua Hou or taken in by seaplane. Kākāpō also breed on Anchor Island, and Te Hauturu-o-Toi (Little Barrier), and birds are being relocated to Chalky Island ahead of the next breeding season because space on other islands is at a premium since the population boom. On Whenua Hou, there’s accommodation for about sixteen people, a running shower, a long drop, and a generator that runs the power needed to keep incubators and technical equipment running.

The success of the breeding seasons rest heavily on the DOC team, and Digby says it’s exhausting: “You immerse yourself in this island life, and all your focus is just on these birds, and these nests, and these eggs. and then when you come back to the mainland for your break, it’s sort of like blinking into the light, and all the cars are going so fast, and there’s so much concrete, and it’s hard to adjust to human life again.” A wistful expression settles across his face when he tells me this. Just describing time on the island appears to make him miss it. Despite often working through consecutive days and nights, Digby says it’s easy to be swept up in the excitement of it all. “It’s like a soap opera in breeding season! You’ve got the birds and it’s like, who’s mated with whom, and we have this running tally on the wall. It’s an exciting time when you find a nest.”

Digby and his pal Sinbad (Photo: Supplied)

I ask him what the cutoff point is for such active conservation – the kākāpō population currently sits at 213 birds, and I want to know if there is a magic number for the species, a threshold reached when the conservationists know they can start to back off. “In terms of numbers, 500 is a rough ballpark number that people tend to throw around for genetic safety … but it’s going to take quite a long time to get anywhere near those sorts of numbers.” Compared to other species, kākāpō get a huge amount of individual attention, which Digby says is ultimately unsustainable. It’s not only labour intensive in a breeding season – every single bird is fitted with a radio transmitter, so their location can be tracked, and they can be kept an eye on. Digby dreams of the day the transmitters will be taken off all the birds for good, and they’ll be left to their own devices in safety. 

Those transmitters proved to be a source of anxiety during the first Covid-19 lockdown this year. In the midst of a human crisis, it’s easy to forget that conservation work must go on. The kākāpō recovery team were watching the calendar and counting down the days until the batteries on the radio transmitters needed to be changed. They couldn’t get out to the islands during alert levels three and four, and the fear was the batteries would die before they could be changed.

“If a transmitter runs out on a kākāpō it’s not good because a) you lose it, and b) it’s wearing its harness, and we’ve got no way of checking it and changing it. It might be lost for a long time. One bird was lost on Whenua Hou for 21 years.” The team were applying for special dispensation to go out to the islands when the lockdown levels shifted from three to two. The batteries were changed just in time.

If it sounds like a lot of work for a small number of birds, well, it is. But if you ask Digby about how he feels about the kākāpō, you’ll go some way towards understanding the passion of the DOC team who care for them. “When something happens to a bird, or when it dies, it hits the team very hard. Because we know them all. Some of the team have worked with them for over 20 years or more. They’ve all got their characters, and we all know those characters. They are all really different. It’s pretty cool.” Digby has a soft spot for a male kākāpō named Sinbad. He’s a partially imprinted bird, which means he’s had contact with humans from an early age and is less frightened in their company than other birds. “He’s very friendly, and he’s very chilled. He’ll just come along, and you’ll be sitting there, and he’ll just walk up to you and put his bill on you.” Digby smiles. It’s as if he’s talking about a good friend. “If you met him, you’d love him. He’s a great bird.”

The kākāpō tends to steal a bit of thunder from other endangered birds in New Zealand. It helps they have a celebrity ambassador, Sirocco, the fully imprinted “spokesbird” who’s charmed audiences all over the world with his antics for many years. Digby’s other endemic wards are the takahē, who are less adorable looking but nonetheless incredibly special. With a population of about 400, their numbers are greater than the kākāpō, but they’re still vulnerable, especially from predation.

When I catch up with Digby in Wellington, it’s a week or so after three takahē have been found dead from suspected 1080 poisoning. It’s a blow for takahē recovery and more fuel for the wider argument about the dangers and efficacy of 1080. Digby visibly winces when I bring it up. “We didn’t expect that. We had an exclusion zone in place. We knew there was a risk, but we’re in this real tricky situation with takahē, because we need places to put them, and pretty much every place which is suitable to put them has 1080 applied.” Digby says the problem of the individual bird versus the total population is the ultimate balancing act in conservation. “Three takahē dying is terrible, but to be honest, we’d lose three takahē anyway – we lost three from stoats in the last three months.” The death of the takahē, while tragic, provides important insight for the team about the birds’ susceptibility to the poison, and the considerations around predator-baiting they employ to protect the species. “1080 is probably the big problem for takahē, so if we can solve that, it’s good.”

Digby has been in Wellington for a hui with the DOC team about future kākāpō habitat sites around New Zealand. He can’t give me any details, but things sound optimistic. One day he hopes people will see them on the mainland, or at least be able to visit the places they inhabit and know they’re there, booming into the night. It surprises me that he thinks that most people don’t care about conservation. He’s circumspect when he says: “People have got real important things to worry about. Conservation comes down on the list. It’s kind of a ‘nice to have’ when you’re affluent and have got time and effort to worry about other things.” Digby says that if people were able to get out to the remote islands and experience our wildlife firsthand, the magic of our birds would change their minds.

Regardless, the birds will always have Digby, who doesn’t hesitate when I ask him if he’ll stay in New Zealand, even though his entire family are on the other side of the world. “I will definitely stay. I’m dedicating my life to try and save these crazy species.” I let him get back to his work, conscious that’s where he’d rather be. We say goodbye and head off in different directions. When I glance back moments later, he’s vanished into the green of the trees. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox