New Zealand’s comedy parrot
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.
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.”
FIND OUT MORE
Learn more at keadatabase.nz and keaconservation.co.nz. Watch clips of kea at: bbc.co.uk/ programmes/p00m7qq1. Listen to Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day on kea: bbc.co.uk/programmes/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.