The kea is a native New Zealand bird. It’s also known as the New Zealand mountain parrot – the only true alpine parrot in the world. The scientific name for kea is Nestor notabilis. They are found only in the mountains of the South Island in a vast habitat of some 3.5m hectares. They once numbered in the hundreds of thousands but are now classified as nationally endangered with between 3,000 and 7,000 birds remaining.
One of the most intelligent bird species in the world, kea are renowned for their playfulness and novelty-seeking nature, which conservationist David Attenborough discovered when filming them for a BBC documentary, titled “The Smartest Parrot, on the west coast of the South Island”.
Tamsin Orr-Walker, the co-founder of the Kea Conservation Trust, said it was “fabulous” the kea had finally won and in many ways it was more representative of New Zealanders than the official national bird, the reclusive kiwi.
“A lot of people are saying the kea should be our national bird because they so much epitomize what it is to be a New Zealander: adventurous and up for a challenge and maybe a bit misunderstood,” she said.
“I think New Zealanders are starting to realize how special keas are; they are interactive birds and seek out humans which are very unusual. The fact they are declining from our mountains is alarming.” Recent studies from the Kea Conservation Trust have found two-thirds of kea chicks never reach fledgling stage, as their nests are ground-dwelling and they are eaten by stoats, rats and possums which the NZ government has pledged to exterminate by 2050.
Orr-Walker said the threat to kea was three-pronged: from introduced species, lead poisoning from old-fashioned alpine dwellings such as huts and shearing sheds, and from their interactions with humans, which include being hit by cars or fed inappropriate food.
Lead poisoning was particularly difficult to tackle, Orr-Walker said, as there were thousands of old buildings dotted around remote parts the South Island that could poison inquisitive kea. The effects of lead poisoning on the birds were disastrous, including brain damage and death.
An estimated 150,000 kea were killed from the 1860s onwards due to a government bounty introduced after conflict with sheep farmers.
The department of conservation and the Kea Conservation Trust continue to record intentional kea deaths each year (either shot, bludgeoned or poisoned by humans) though such incidents are thought to be under-reported.
“Education efforts have gone a long way towards New Zealanders learning to love and respect the kea, but if the kea cause financial loss or begin to hit people’s bottom line, that is when we are still hearing stories of kea being killed,” said Josh Kemp, a kea expert at New Zealand’s department of conservation.
Despite their protected status, keas have divided Kiwis between those who enjoy the cheeky parrot’s animated nature and those who curse its destructive habits such as damaging cars, tents and buildings in alpine environments, attacking stock and habitually stealing food.
Interesting Facts About Kea
Keas are very intelligent birds. They learn impressive foraging skills from their parents and other older birds, and become very skilled with their beaks and claws. As their environment has changed, keas have learned to adapt. Hunters, farmers and hikers all have stories of watching kea learns to get into doors and windows or undo their packs to steal food!
They’re also notorious for attacking cars if they get the chance – yanking on aerials and pecking at the rubber around car doors.
Keas are famously curious and love to experience new things and solve puzzles. A recent study about kea intelligence showed how these clever birds can work in teams to achieve their goals.
Young kea hangs out in gangs until they start mating. They are also very playful – you can watch them playing with each other, and even playing practical jokes on humans. These fun-loving birds will swoop down to steal people’s belongings, or throw stones at them!
They are very bold and will happily approach people, especially in places where they have learned they might get food. However, we should never feed kea. Some visitors think it might be funny to offer kea their food and take a photo. However, human food can be bad for birds and make them sick.
If we feed young kea, they’ll be less likely to hunt for themselves and eat the right food. They can become dependent on human scraps. It also makes the kea more likely to spend time in human areas, which can lead to kea getting hurt by people, cars, dogs etc. or causing damage to property.
The best places to see kea on your way to Milford Sound in Southwest of New Zealand’s are near Monkey Creek and around the Homer Tunnel. If you see kea…
- Take photos – as long as you’re not holding up traffic or getting too close to the kea
- Make sure your car is closed and locked and the keys safely tucked away
- Close your bag or backpack
- Enjoy seeing these beautiful, intelligent birds in the wild
- Feed the kea
- Leave your car open
- Encourage them to come closer or damage property. Let’s protect the world’s smartest parrot.