New Zealand’s com­edy par­rot

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Kirsten Amor

Loved for its vi­brant plumage and cheeky in­tel­li­gence, the fun-lov­ing kea is a firm favourite – but it needs our help to en­sure its sur­vival

With its in­tel­li­gence and al­most hu­man sense of hu­mour, the kea is a firm favourite in New Zealand, but its ap­petite and cu­rios­ity can lead it into trou­ble.

Wind buf­feted the ridge from the side, as we inched across its needle­point path. The sun had fi­nally burned through morn­ing thun­der clouds to re­veal daz­zling lakes and moun­tains. It was then, at this dra­matic sec­tion of the Ke­pler Track on the South Is­land of New Zealand, that the kea first ap­peared.

Soar­ing through the sky, a large, lu­mi­nous-green par­rot with or­ange trim around its wings landed only a few feet away. Five oth­ers ar­rived and, al­most im­me­di­ately, the games be­gan. One kea hopped over and be­gan tug­ging at my shoelaces; an­other started scratch­ing the wa­ter­proof cover of my ruck­sack with its beak; an­other two tried to push the cover off my cam­era lens. Laugh­ing, I man­aged to res­cue my cam­era and ruck­sack. Later, at the Iris Burn Hut, we re­counted the com­i­cal in­ci­dent to the sea­sonal park rangers, Rob­bie and Jess.

“You can see why these birds are known as moun­tain clowns,” said Jess. “They of­ten ap­pear on that sec­tion of the track. They didn’t nick any of your stuff, did they?” I shook my head. “Oh good – kea are very in­tel­li­gent. Some stud­ies com­pare the av­er­age in­tel­li­gence of a kea to that of a fouryear-old child.” And, as with hu­man young­sters, a sense of mis­chief can get them in trou­ble.

“Be­ing so smart means kea get bored eas­ily,” Jess con­tin­ued. “They’re highly in­quis­i­tive, and peo­ple are nor­mally all too will­ing to give them stuff to play with. We know some kea around here have even worked out how to open zips.” Rob­bie joined in.

“But while these par­rots are lots of fun and seem plen­ti­ful up in the moun­tains, they’re ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered Vul­ner­a­ble. There may be fewer than 5,000 wild kea left, and that’s largely down to the ac­tions of hu­mans, in­clud­ing bring­ing preda­tors to New Zealand.” It was a re­frain we were to hear through­out the rest of our trip.

A born sur­vivor

En­demic to New Zealand’s South Is­land, kea have evolved over mil­len­nia to sur­vive harsh alpine con­di­tions. They be­came om­ni­vores, with sharply curved beaks and claws suited to for­ag­ing on berries, seeds and grubs, as well as scav­eng­ing the flesh from car­casses. They play an im­por­tant part in alpine ecosys­tems, by spread­ing seeds across the moun­tain ranges: around 12 per cent of New Zealand’s alpine flora de­pends on kea.

With few other size­able meat-eaters around, kea flour­ished. To­day, how­ever, the birds’ neophilia – their love of new things – has be­come a dou­ble-edged sword, en­sur­ing their sur­vival but also, with the ar­rival of peo­ple, their de­struc­tion.

Euro­pean set­tlers came in the 1860s, but kea’s prob­lems re­ally be­gan with the in­tro­duc­tion of sheep farm­ing. They gar­nered a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing pests: kea rel­ish high-en­ergy foods, such as fat, and soon learned to cut through the backs of sheep to reach the fat around their liv­ers. As a re­sult, the govern­ment in­tro­duced a bounty of 10 shillings (equiv­a­lent to NZ$120 to­day, or ap­prox­i­mately £62.50) for ev­ery kea killed. Around 150,000 kea were ex­ter­mi­nated be­tween the 1860s and 1970.

The set­tlers also brought in­va­sive preda­tors with them, in the form of stoats and rats from Europe, brush­tail pos­sums from Aus­tralia, and do­mes­tic cats. With plen­ti­ful dense forests and abun­dant food, the alien mam­mals thrived, soon threat­en­ing many of New Zealand’s groundnest­ing na­tive birds. Kea nest in bur­rows,

so were vul­ner­a­ble. Yet the species did not be­come legally pro­tected un­til 1986.

Nowa­days, kea face a whole host of other threats to their sur­vival too. Bruce McKin­lay of the coun­try’s Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion (DOC) ex­plains: “Kea can adapt their be­hav­iour to ex­plore new things in their en­vi­ron­ment very quickly. How­ever, from an evo­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive, hu­mans and kea have only shared the land for the blink of an eye. Peo­ple bring ob­jects into the en­vi­ron­ment and cre­ate sit­u­a­tions that kea are not re­ally bi­o­log­i­cally equipped to han­dle.”

Mark Brabyn, one of the ini­tia­tors of a cit­i­zen-science pro­ject called the Kea Data­base, agrees. “Kea see wires and power lines, and want to know what’s in­side them. Three birds were elec­tro­cuted in the Tem­ple Basin ski pass area re­cently. An­other se­ri­ous is­sue is cars. Five kea were hit by ve­hi­cles in Arthur’s Pass last year. Kea like a high­pro­tein, high-fat diet, so when a tanker filled with cream turned over and spilt its con­tents all over the road, it nat­u­rally at­tracted the birds.”

It is this scav­eng­ing, cu­ri­ous be­hav­iour that puts the birds at risk. “It makes kea re­liant on hand-outs from peo­ple, which isn’t nec­es­sar­ily good for them,” says Mark. “Sev­eral types of hu­man food, such as choco­late, are poi­sonous to the birds. Yet peo­ple of­fer them choco­late quite reg­u­larly, and kea have even learned to steal it from kiosks in the ski ar­eas.”

The other is­sue is waste pack­ag­ing, which kea can eas­ily eat while scav­eng­ing for food. “I’ve seen pho­to­graphs of kea with their

“A lot of hu­man food, such as choco­late, is poi­sonous to the birds. Yet kea have learned to steal it from the ski kiosks.”

guts full of wrap­pers, plas­tic and other rub­bish,” he adds.

The scav­eng­ing is not just lim­ited to food – lead poi­son­ing is an un­usual but un­for­tu­nately com­mon cause of death in these alpine par­rots. “Kea are at­tracted to lead flash­ings found on the old build­ings here, but when they peel it off they can get lead poi­son­ing,” says Mark. “For some rea­son, lead tastes sweet to them.” The Kea Con­ser­va­tion Trust has an on­go­ing pro­ject to iden­tify, re­move and re­place all lead on build­ings in South Is­land. It also tests kea for lead lev­els in their bod­ies so that treat­ment can be given be­fore it’s too late.

Un­der at­tack

Stoats, rats, pos­sums and cats con­tinue to plague kea. Up to 40 per cent of young birds do not sur­vive their first year, and rats and stoats read­ily kill fe­male kea that at­tempt to de­fend their nests. Adults and young alike are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to at­tack in the pe­riod be­fore the nestlings learn to fly. To boost the birds’ sur­vival rate, New Zealand’s con­ser­va­tion­ists are in­volv­ing the pub­lic in large-scale ef­forts to deal with these in­va­sive preda­tors. Ev­ery year, the DOC runs a ‘Bat­tle for our Birds’ pro­gramme, which aims to re­duce pop­u­la­tions of in­va­sive preda­tors and pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble na­tive species. The cam­paign fo­cuses on spread­ing poi­son across vast swathes of for­est from the air. The sub­stance used is 1080, a syn­thetic form of sodium flu­o­roac­etate. This biodegrad­able chem­i­cal oc­curs nat­u­rally in plants and has a con­sis­tency sim­i­lar to colour­less salt. In ad­di­tion, baited traps laced with 1080 are laid and other ground­based preda­tor con­trols are car­ried out. The num­ber of kea taken by preda­tors shoots up dur­ing forest­seed­ing sea­sons – for ex­am­ple, when beech trees (New Zealand has five species of beech, all un­re­lated to Eurasian beech) pro­duce their mast. An abun­dant seed crop leads to a sharp in­crease in mice and rat pop­u­la­tions, in turn boost­ing stoat pop­u­la­tions. The com­bined preda­tor on­slaught means that the pro­por­tion of kea chicks sur­viv­ing may drop as low as one per cent.

When an area is treated with 1080, nearly 100 per cent of the rats and 95 per cent of the pos­sums are killed. Peter Mor­ton of the DOC says that they have al­ready seen great re­sults. “The ben­e­fits of pest con­trol are very ap­par­ent, with im­proved kea breed­ing suc­cess when preda­tors are con­trolled,” he says. “Ob­servers re­ported a group of around 20 young birds last sum­mer, which is ex­cep­tional. See­ing that many ju­ve­nile kea is an en­cour­ag­ing in­di­ca­tion that preda­tor con­trol in the area is help­ing to pro­tect chicks in nests – en­abling them to fledge suc­cess­fully.”

Mon­i­tor­ing pest con­trol

But there are con­cerns about the po­ten­tial dangers of re­leas­ing 1080 into forests, and the side-ef­fects it might have on kea. In one 2016 study, the DOC tracked the birds through­out pest-con­trol op­er­a­tions in South West­land and at Arthur’s Pass, Kahu­rangi Na­tional Park and Lake Ro­toiti. Four out of 49 kea had died from 1080 poi­son­ing. Since then, how­ever, ef­forts have been made to avoid alpine ar­eas that the kea fre­quent for food, and with well-timed 1080 aerial con­trols, 70 per cent of kea nests are now suc­cess­ful.

Over­all, Peter ar­gues that the 1080 pro­gramme has proved its worth. “Re­search is giv­ing us in­creas­ing con­fi­dence that pest-con­trol op­er­a­tions im­prove kea nest­ing suc­cess and ju­ve­nile sur­vival dur­ing beech­mast events,” he says. “In a nut­shell, more kea breed and sur­vive in the ar­eas that do re­ceive aerial 1080 than in the ar­eas that don’t.”

The Kea Data­base is a cit­i­zen-science ini­tia­tive es­tab­lished in 2017 by Mark Brabyn, Laura Young and Ge­orge Moon to en­hance our un­der­stand­ing of kea. Hope­fully, a bet­ter-in­formed pub­lic will lead to fewer un­nec­es­sary kea deaths. With the help of vol­un­teers, the team aims to ring as many kea as pos­si­ble, giv­ing each in­di­vid­ual a unique name and pro­file on the data­base, and is shar­ing the de­tails on in­for­ma­tion boards and pam­phlets. This al­lows lo­cal peo­ple and tourists alike to

“Kea are at­tracted to lead flash­ings found on the old build­ings here.”

iden­tify which kea they saw, and then to up­date the data­base with in­for­ma­tion about its be­hav­iour and in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple.

“What’s unique about this data­base is that you can keep track of a kea you haven’t seen for months and know what it is up to,” says Mark. “Some­times kea will fly across sev­eral moun­tain ridges – it’s in­ter­est­ing to see just how far they travel.”

A use­ful tool

The data­base is a use­ful pub­lic en­gage­ment tool. “Lots of school and con­ser­va­tion groups want to spon­sor a kea,” Mark says. “They watch ‘their’ bird grow from a fledg­ling into an adult. Since the data­base launched about a year ago, we have ringed around 50 kea and over 2,000 sight­ings have been logged in the data­base. This is what I love about cit­i­zen science – get­ting all these dif­fer­ent peo­ple in­volved.”

Next year, the team plans to de­velop the data­base fur­ther. “You will be able to search for sight­ings logged by a par­tic­u­lar cit­i­zen sci­en­tist, or search for groups of kea,” Mark ex­plains. The more sight­ings there are, the more use it will be to re­search or­gan­i­sa­tions. As for the DOC, it has signed up to an am­bi­tious, much-pub­li­cised goal known as ‘Preda­tor Free 2050’ – to erad­i­cate all pos­sums, rats and stoats in both main­land New Zealand and on its is­lands by 2050. This can only help kea. In a sign that times are chang­ing, in 2017 the kea was voted ‘Bird of the Year’ in New Zealand’s pop­u­lar an­nual poll (it re­ceived more votes than there are mem­bers of the species in the wild). Has the Kea Data­base team seen any dif­fer­ence in pub­lic at­ti­tudes to­wards these fun-lov­ing, meat-eat­ing moun­tain par­rots? “It’s still early days for the pro­ject,” Mark says. “But lo­cal peo­ple are telling us that in­stead of be­ing proud of feed­ing kea, they’re say­ing ‘let’s re­port them’. We’ve even had peo­ple tell us that they’ve spot­ted tourists feed­ing the birds and have gone over to ask them to stop.”


Learn more at kea­ and kea­con­ser­va­ Watch clips of kea at: pro­grammes/p00m7qq1. Lis­ten to Ra­dio 4’s Tweet of the Day on kea:­grammes/b04t0t44

This data­base al­lows you to keep track of a kea you haven’t seen for months.

The kea is the world’s only alpine par­rot and was crowned New Zealand’s Bird of the Year for 2017.

From above: the kea is one of the most in­tel­li­gent birds – some have even man­aged to work out how to open zips; their in­quis­i­tive na­ture can get them into trou­ble; they are not scared of hu­mans and will pluck at your laces; kea have been known to move cones into the road, forc­ing cars to stop.

Above: the kea’s olive-green plumage helps cam­ou­flage it on the ground, but in flight scar­let un­der­wings are re­vealed. Its usual call is a dis­tinc­tive high-pitched ‘kee-ah’.

Top: a kea be­ing caught for re­search. Right: these birds eas­ily ne­go­ti­ate rocky out­crops.

From top: kea are un­usual in that they ac­tively seek out and in­ter­act with hu­mans; the birds form pair bonds and are ter­ri­to­rial, usu­ally oc­cu­py­ing an area of 4km2; kea nest in bur­rows un­der trees or rocks. A sin­gle clutch of eggs is laid be­tween July and Oc­to­ber and the chicks hatch af­ter four weeks.

Top: the birds can fly across sev­eral moun­tain ridges. Right: a lot of hu­man food, eg choco­late, is poi­sonous for kea.

KIRSTEN AMOR writes about travel and the out­doors. She spent time with kea con­ser­va­tion­ists in 2017.

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