Archive for November, 2008

Alien-looking Squid filmed (not at all bird or parrot related)

November 26, 2008 Leave a comment

I find stuff like this utterly amazing:



A deep-water remote control submersible (2.5 km down!) filmed this thing. The water craft was owned by the Shell Company, and they decided scientists might want to see this. I wonder what other strange stuff oil company submersibles have filmed while looking for drilling sites.  Scientists are partnering with the oil companies now, which makes sense as I don’t imagine that these types of things are cheap to operate!

Deep sea creatures can be just so alien looking.  This squid really looks like something from another planet. Some cephalopods (octopuses, mainly) are reputed to be intelligent as well, which adds to their mystery and other-wordly nature.

Speaking of octopuses, it’s easy to waste lots of time on watching videos on these.

This video demonstrates why they’re so hard to keep in captivity. They can escape through very tiny holes:

They can also shape-shift, in a way. The octopus stuff starts about a minute in:


Kakapo repaired after painful poke.

November 19, 2008 Leave a comment

Kakapo repaired after painful poke | Wednesday, 19 November 2008

A female kakapo who indelicately injured herself by sitting on a sharp stick has been repaired at the Auckland Zoo.

A Department of Conservation national kakapo team member discovered “Sarah” and her predicament last month on Codfish Island in the far south.

She was flown to Auckland to be treated by the vet team at the zoo’s New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine.

“Sarah was in a potentially life-threatening state when she arrived. She had a nasty wound to her cloaca and had lost a lot of weight through not being able to forage,” Dr John Potter said.

“She’s responded exceptionally well to treatment and has proven to be a quick healer. She’s also been self-feeding on kumara, apple, nikau berries and other native plants, which has meant that we’ve been able to keep tube feeding her with high-protein parrot formula to a minimum.

“Kakapo don’t generally self-feed in a captive situation, so that’s been especially pleasing. By nature, Sarah is a very feisty bird, and I think this has also contributed to her fast recovery. Since arriving she has put on over 170 grams, and now weighs over 1140 grams,” says Dr Potter.

Programme manager for the National Kakapo Team, Deidre Vercoe, says while Sarah is unlikely to breed this coming season due her needing time to recover, she is a good breeder and is likely to breed again in the future.

Sarah, who is being flown home tomorrow morning, is one of the original founder kakapo birds from Stewart Island. Discovered there in 1989 and relocated to Codfish Island, she has produced two offspring in the past six years – six-year-old male Ariki, and three-year-old female, Pounamu.

The total kakapo population is currently 90 birds, but Ms Vercoe says that with the bumper breeding season expected this coming summer, due to the heavy fruiting of rimu trees, that figure is likely to rise.

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New Zealand’s Wild Parrots Part III: Kakariki and Kakapo

November 8, 2008 2 comments

New Zealand’s Wild Parrots Part III: Kakariki and Kakapo

In my previous two articles in this series about New Zealand’s native parrots, I described my experiences watching free-living Kea and Kaka on a recent trip there.  Since I wanted to see kakariki as well, I spent the last few days of my trip on Stewart Island (or Rakiura), which is New Zealand’s third largest island at 1746 km2.  It’s a one-hour ferry ride from the south end of the South Island, and is one of New Zealand’s best places to go birdwatching.  Kaka and kakariki are among the native birds that are very common there.  Even on the ferry ride there, I was able to see several mollymawks (medium albatrosses) gliding gracefully over the waters.  With wingspans of about two meters, they were a magnificent sight.  I also spotted a few seals and shags (cormorants) from the ferry.

As noted in the previously posted article on Kaka, I also visited Ulva Island while I was on Stewart Island.  The 250 ha Ulva Island is very rich in birdlife, because it is free of introduced mammals.  However, biologists still place some traps there to catch rats, because rats are capable of swimming there from other nearby islands or of stealthily hitching a ride there on a boat.  Ulva Island is close to Stewart Island, and the boat ride there only lasts about seven minutes.  Two species of kakariki live on Ulva Island.




Red-fronted Kakariki

Red and Yellow-fronted Kakariki


Most books on pet parrots and aviculture refer to New Zealand’s green, long-tailed parrots as kakariki, which is what they are called in the Maori language.  Note that the plural form (“kakariki”) is the same as the singular form.  However, many scientific publications and field guides refer to them as parakeets, and they actually are more closely related to the parakeets of Australia than they are to Kea or Kaka.  No matter what common name they are referred to, all kakariki or New Zealand parakeets belong to the scientific genus Cyanoramphus.  There are three species on the New Zealand mainland, and several more on the surrounding islands.  Red-fronted Kakariki (or Red-crowned Parakeets, C. novaezelandiae) are the most common of the kakariki, both in aviculture and in the wild, and I managed to see several of them on Stewart Island right in the small town of Oban.  They are fast moving, emerald-green birds, with scarlet bands across their eyes, a patch of scarlet feathers on their foreheads, long, elegant tails and azure blue flight feathers.


Yellow-fronted Kakariki

Yellow-fronted Kakariki (or Yellow-crowned Parakeets, C. auriceps) also occur on Stewart Island.  Like the red fronts, they have scarlet feathers across the area right above their beaks, but, as I’m sure you guessed by the name, they also have a patch of yellow feathers on their foreheads.  They are also a bit smaller than the cockatiel-sized red fronts.  Both species also occur on the North and South Islands of New Zealand, and on several nearby off-shore islands.  Red-fronted Kakariki also occur on the Chatham Islands, 800 km east of Christchurch, the Kermadec Islands, 800-1000 km northeast of New Zealand, and the Auckland Islands, 400 km south of Stewart Island.  Yellow-fronted Kakariki can also be found on the Auckland Islands.  Even though red and yellow fronts often occur in the same places, the two species generally don’t interbreed in nature.  They will do so in captivity; however, hybridizing such threatened species is generally discouraged by most aviculturalists.

Searching for wild Kakarikis

Red-fronted and Yellow-fronted Kakariki are less common on the North and the South Islands than they used to be, but they are easy to find on Stewart Island.  There, I saw a few around the motel I stayed at, where they stood out quite well due to their fast movements and vivid green coloration.  Because of their powerful voices, Kaka were also easy to spot in Oban.  Once I got to Ulva Island, however, I needed to put a bit more effort into seeing the kakariki.  Their green feathers make them blend in perfectly against the trees they forage in, and they are not nearly as loud as the Kaka.  The clear, beautiful songs of Tui and Bellbirds also stood out more than the kakariki calls.  Tui are a type of honeyeater with dark, iridescent feathers and they share some traits with parrots.  They are superb mimics – captive birds can learn to speak very well, and wild birds can have very complex songs.  They are also regarded as being very intelligent.

Where's the Kakariki

Where's the kakariki?

I found that the best way to spot the cryptic birds like kakariki was to simply stop periodically and listen carefully to the forest.  The birds would often come to me when I did that.  At one point, I felt something tugging on my pant leg while I sat on a bench.  I was startled for a split second, since I was the only person on the island at the time.  However, I turned around and saw a charming littlesirobin grey and white Stewart Island Robin on the ground.  He wasn’t afraid of me and let me take several pictures of him.  He had a few rings on his legs, presumably put there by biologists keeping track of the robin population.  Perhaps he was one of the birds released there by biologists.  Several birds belonging to rare species, including South Island Saddlebacks, and the aforementioned robins (actually a type of flycatcher) have been released on the island.  These reintroductions seem to be working very well.  Wekas – bold, brown, chicken-like birds – would also casually forage around me like I wasn’t there.  Wekas were common on the beaches and the forests and they were quite interesting to watch as they rooted around leaf litter and washed up seaweed for some edible tidbits.  I also managed to locate many small foraging groups of kakariki by listening for the sounds of them flying or snapping branches as they foraged.





Most of the kakariki I saw were busily foraging high in the forest canopies in pairs or small groups.  I did catch a few on the forest floor, rooting around for fallen seeds or insects.  Many captive kakariki like to forage on the ground as well.  On some subantarctic islands that have few trees, kakariki will live primarily on the ground and will breed there among clumps of tussock grass.  As is typical for many parrots, wild kakariki eat a range of items including berries, seeds, nuts, grass shoots, grains, buds, nectar and insects.  They also sometimes rub the juices of berries onto their feathers with their beaks.  This behavior is called “anting,” since some birds do the same thing with ants.  It is unclear why they do this, but one hypothesis is that it helps rid the plumage of parasites.


Photographing the Kakariki

Since I had my camera with me, I attempted to get some photos of wild kakariki.  However, unlike Kaka and Kea, kakariki were quite tricky to photograph.  They move and fly extremely quickly and rarely stay in one place for very long.  Even when I saw them on the ground, they tended to zip oystercatcheraround so by the time I focused on one, it had usually moved away.  I got a lot of blurry photos and a few snapshots of kakariki tails.  Most kakariki spent plenty of time high in the thick tree canopy, partially obscured by the branches, so I spent a lot of time watching them through binoculars.  As a result, most of the kakariki photographs with this article are of birds I saw in a large, walk-through aviary at the Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch.  However, I was able to snap some pictures of wild Stewart Island Robins, saddlebacks, Variable Oystercatchers, and Wekas while on Ulva Island.  I also saw Bellbirds, Tui, fantails, fernbirds, many different pelagic bird species, and Keruru (native pigeons).  I spent four hours on Ulva Island, though I could have easily used up the whole day without becoming bored.  Back on Stewart Island, I went hiking and birdwatching again since there are a lot of good trails, and I was rewarded with some more fleeting glimpses of kakariki and Kaka.  The views of the sea and surrounding islands from many of the trails were also spectacular.


Antipodes Island Kakarikis

Antipodes Island Kakariki

Antipodes Island Kakariki


I only had the opportunity to see Yellow-fronted and Red-fronted Kakariki in the wild, but I was able to see some Antipodes Island Kakariki (or parakeets, C. unicolor) living at the Te Anau Wildlife Center, in Fiordland, on the South Island.  A small flock of them lives in a very large aviary there.  These parakeets are not often kept in captivity outside of New Zealand, so I had never seen them before.  The flock I saw spent the time I was there foraging around on the ground, as there was food and some hay down there for them to root through.  The Antipodes Islands Parakeet is larger than the other Cyanoramphus species and occurs on the subantarctic Antipodes Islands.  The largest island in the group is a 60 km2 island 650 km southeast of Stewart Island.  It’s a weird place to find parrots: there are no trees there, and it’s often chilly and windy.  The island is uninhabited by people and is classified as a nature preserve, and a permit is needed to land there.  As is indicated by its scientific name, this parrot is primarily of one colour: a brilliant emerald green.  They share the Antipodes Island with the Reischek’s Parakeet, Cyanoramphus erythrotis, which used to be classified as a subspecies of the Red-fronted Kakariki.


The wildlife center at Te Anau also had some very rare Takahe on display, along with Kaka, Kea, Keruru, various waterfowl, and Red and Yellow-fronted Kakariki.  All of the birds were living in spacious aviaries with plenty of vegetation, and some of the animals there were injured wild-born birds that were being rehabilitated.  One Kaka that was living in a large aviary had previously spent his life living in a tiny cage barely big enough for a budgie before he was given to the wildlife center.

Kaka at the Te Anau Wildlife Centre

Kaka at the Te Anau Wildlife Centre


Takahe at the Te Anau Wildlife Centre

Other Kakariki Species

While I was only able to see two kakariki species in the wild, and a third in aviaries, there is one other species that occurs on mainland New Zealand, and a few others that occur on offshore islands.  The third kakariki species that occurs on mainland New Zealand is the Orange-fronted Kakariki (or the Malherbe’s Parakeet, Cyanoramphus malherbi).  These birds look similar to the yellow fronts, but the patch of yellow feathers on their forehead is a pale lemon-yellow, in comparison to the deep golden-yellow forehead patch the yellow fronts have.  Orange fronts, of course, also have some orange on their heads, in the form of a band of feathers above their beaks.  The orange and yellow fronts are so similar that some biologists have considered the orange fronts a colour variant of the yellow fronts.  However, genetic analyses have demonstrated that they are genetically distinct from the yellow fronts and careful observations indicate that the two species do not interbreed with each other in the wild (Boon et al., 2000).


The Orange-fronted Kakariki is now considered a distinct species.  It is in immediate danger of becoming extinct, because only about 100-200 birds still exist.  They live in the Canterbury district of the South Island, in beech forests in Arthur’s Pass National Park and Lake Sumner Forest Park.  Some populations have also been established on offshore islands, just in case the mainland population declines or goes extinct.

The Forbes’ Kakariki (or Forbes’ Parakeet, C. forbesi), has also been the subject of some controversy.  It resembles the Yellow-fronted Kakariki, but is slightly larger, and its calls are quite different.  It was debatable as to whether it should be considered a subspecies of the Yellow-fronted Kakariki or a separate species of its own until genetic analyses demonstrated that it is a distinct species (Boon et al., 2000).  Like the Orange-fronted Kakariki, the Forbes’ Parakeet is critically endangered.  It lives on two small islands in the Chatham’s group, about 800 kilometers east of Christchurch.


Red-fronted Kakariki also occur on the Chatham Islands, and many Forbes’ Parakeets have bred with these red fronts, and such widespread hybridization is threatening the genetic integrity of the Forbes’ Parakeet (Chan et al., 2006).  Before Europeans arrived to the Chatham Islands, the two species probably did not commonly interbreed. However, once humans deforested much of the islands, numbers of Forbes’ Parakeets declined, because they prefer to live and forage in forests.  Red-fronted Kakariki, however, can survive in deforested areas, and since they are now far more common than the rare Forbes’ parakeets, some Forbes’ started to breed with the red fronts.  A small population of pure Forbes’ Parakeets does exist on the tiny, 113 ha Mangere Island.


Another species of kakariki (C. saisetti) occurs on New Caledonia, 1500 km northwest of New Zealand, and another lives on the tiny, 34.6 km2 Norfolk Island (C. cooki), which lies between New Zealand and New Caledonia.  Both of these species used to be considered subspecies of the Red-fronted Kakariki (Boon et al., 2001).  The New Caledonia Kakariki has a yellower face and underparts and a brighter red crown than the red-fronted variety.  The Norfolk Island Kakariki is a bit bigger than the mainland red fronts.


The Other Parrot I didn’t See

I managed to see Kaka, Kea, and kakariki on my trip, but the three main islands of New

Kakapo model at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington

Kakapo model at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington

Zealand were once home to another, very curious, species of parrot: the Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus).  I didn’t see any of them – other than a stuffed one at the Te Papa museum in Wellington – but they’re such fascinating birds that I cannot bear to leave them out of this series of articles.  The Kakapo is critically endangered, as there are only 86 individuals left, all of whom live on small, predator-free offshore islands.  The usual problems – habitat destruction and the presence of introduced mammals – contributed to the birds’ dramatic decline.  Being flightless, Kakapo are a very easy target for hungry predators.  It also does not help that Kakapo really don’t know how to deal with dangerous mammals.  For instance, their instinctive response to the site of a cat is to freeze.  Because Kakapo have never dealt with such land predators before, they have not evolved any defensive behaviors to deal with them.


I would have loved to see a Kakapo.  There are some of them living on Codfish Island, a short distance from Stewart Island. They are such appealing and intriguing animals with their bright, innocent faces and utterly unparrot-like characteristics.  For instance, while most parrots are social, diurnal, and can fly, Kakapo are solitary, nocturnal, and flightless.  They also have a breeding system not seen in any other parrot.  Males are polygynous and do not assist with rearing the young.  They are quite large for parrots, since an adult Kakapo can weigh up to nine pounds, which makes them the heaviest parrot.  They also have a very strong, sweet, musky scent to them, and they have great senses of smell, again, unlike any other parrot.


Kakapo breed in what biologists call a lek system.  During the breeding season, many male Kakapo will gather in a valley, and space themselves about 50 m apart.  Each bird will then clear an area and dig a depression in it where he will call and display to the females.  Of course, these calls are not normal parrot calls.  Instead, the male will inflate a thoracic sack with air and produce loud, low-frequency booming noises as he releases the air.  He will do this for up to eight hours a night for three to four months.  Once a female shows up, he will display to her by rocking back and forth and clicking his beak.  If she’s pleased, she’ll mate with him; otherwise, she’ll carry on to the next male.  Once a male and female mate, they part ways and the female will care for the eggs and young on her own.  The male will continue to boom.


The late Douglas Adams got to see a wild Kakapo on Codfish Island, and he wrote a chapter about them in the excellent book Last Chance To See.  He noted, regarding their sweet appearance that, “If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent comprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know it probably will not be.”


Regarding their calls, he wrote that, “[they] gradually descend in pitch, resonate in his two air sacs, and reverberate through the night air, filling the valleys for miles around with the eerie sound of an immense heart beating in the night.”


This heartbeat stopped on the North Island in the 1920s, and then on the South Island in the late 1970s.  At that point, no one was sure if the Kakapo would survive.  Did Stewart Island harbor any Kakapo?  In the late 1970s, biologists conducted a search there, the last place where the Kakapo could possibly still boom.  They were there: the forest still had a heartbeat.  However, there were Kakapo-killing cats on the island, so conservationists placed the Kakapo in intensive care.  All birds were airlifted to uninhabited, predator-free islands.


Because each individual is so precious in terms of the species’ chances of survival, all Kakapo must be well protected from potential threats, so their island homes are not open to casual visitors, who could stress out the birds or inadvertently bring rats.  However, one Kakapo was brought to Ulva Island in 2006 and hundreds of people from throughout the world went to view the very special bird, “Sirocco,” on display. Only one supervised group of people per day was allowed to view him.  Other than that, only biologists and volunteers who watch and guard Kakapo nests during the breeding season have the chance to see the birds.  It’s for the best: I have a feeling that if it weren’t for these strict protective measures and the heroic efforts put out by conservationists to save this unique bird, it would have already disappeared.


Leaving the Island

I headed back to the mainland from Stewart Island after three days, so I could get back to Christchurch to catch my flight home.  It was extremely windy and rainy that day, so the ferry rocked madly and was pelted by huge waves on the way back to the South Island.  It made for a dramatic ride.  Naturally, I wondered if I would ever be back.  I hope so; I really became fascinated with New Zealand’s birdlife.  However, it’s so far from where I live that I can’t say for sure. I do feel quite lucky that I had the opportunity to see wild parrots, which made for some unforgettable experiences.




Adams, Douglas and Carwardine, M.  1991. Last Chance to See. Pan MacMillan Books, London, UK.


Boon W. M., Daugherty, C. H., and Chambers G. K.  2001.  The Norfolk Island Green Parrot and New Caledonian Red-crowned Parakeet are distinct species.  Emu 101: 113-121 2001


Boon, W. M., Kearvell, J. C., Daugherty, C. H., and Chambers, G. K.  2000.  Molecular systematics of New Zealand Cyanoramphus parakeets: Conservation of orange-fronted and Forbes’ Parakeets.  Bird Conservation International 10: 211-239.


Chan, C. H., Ballantyne, K. N., Aikman, H., Fastier, D., Daugherty, C. H., and Chambers, G. K.  Genetic analysis of interspecific hybridization in the world’s only Forbes’ parakeet (Cyanoramphus forbesi) natural population.  Conservation Genetics 7: 493-506.

Sidebar: Extinct Cyanoramphus


Two other Cyanoramphus species once existed in the tropical islands north of New Zealand.


The Black-fronted Parakeet (Cyanoramphus zealandicus) was found on Tahiti and the surrounding Society Islands.  They were green birds with black foreheads, red rumps and scarlet stripes behind the eyes.  Black-fronted Kakarikis were discovered by westerners in 1769 on Captain Cook’s first voyage, and they went extinct soon after.  Only five specimens of this species exist in natural history museums England and France.


The second extinct Cyanoramphus is the Society Parakeet, C. ulietanus.  It was found on Raiatea, of the Society Islands, and was described by naturalists in Captain Cook’s party in 1773.  Just two specimens of this bird still exist – one at the Natural History Museum in London and one at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna.  This was a much darker-coloured bird than the other species in the genus.  They were primarily brown with ochre yellow breasts and abdomens, and reddish-brown coloured rumps and upper tails.


Deforestation and the introduction of invasive species may have contributed to the decline of these two species.  Very little is known about their behavior or natural history, because they went extinct before they could be studied.

Meet the Kaka: The Kea’s Lesser-known Cousin

November 4, 2008 2 comments

This is an article I wrote which appeared in the November 2007 issue of Parrots magazine.

Meet the Kaka: The Kea’s Lesser-known Cousin

Last post, I wrote about my experiences watching keas (Nestor notabilis) on a recent trip I took to New Zealand. Keas are well-known among parrot fanciers for their remarkable intelligence, intense curiosity, and extremely destructive behavior. I was absolutely thrilled to have been able to see some in the wild. I was also able to see groups of another similar parrot that lives in New Zealand: The kākā (Nestor meridionalis). The kaka is not as well-known as the kea and they are extremely rare in aviculture or zoos outside of New Zealand. So, allow me to introduce you to this handsome, little-known parrot.

A North Island Kaka

A North Island Kaka

Introducing the Kaka

Kakas occur in forests in New Zealand. Their name comes from the Maori and Polynesian word for parrot. “Kaka” is also part of the Maori names for other New Zealand parrots: the kakarikis (little parrots) and the kakapo (ground parrot). The kea and the kaka are close evolutionary relatives, and they are only distantly related to other parrot species. Their closest relative is the kakapo, a heavy, flightless, green parrot.

Prior to the 1800s, there were actually three species in the genus Nestor, with the third one being the Norfolk Island Kaka (Nestor productus). This bird occurred on the Norfolk and Phillip Islands, which are about 1000 km northwest of Auckland, New Zealand. The last one died in captivity in London in 1851, although the species was likely wiped out in the wild before then. Norfolk Island Kakas were not afraid of people and were hunted widely for food by European settlers. Others were trapped as pets. Another Nestor species related to the kaka occurred on the Chatham Islands, about 800 km east of Christchurch, New Zealand, but this parrot is only known from fossils and the date is went extinct is unknown.

Norfolk Island Kakas looked very similar to the New Zealand Kakas. The kakas on New Zealand are mainly brown with red-tipped feathers on the belly and the back of the neck, scarlet feathers under the wing and white feathers on the top of the head. They resemble keas somewhat, but are a bit smaller, are brown instead of olive, and their upper mandibles are heavier and broader. The Norfolk Island Kaka differed from mainland kaka in that they were slightly smaller, their cheeks were orange, their chests were yellow and the tops of their heads were brown. They were undoubtedly very beautiful birds. All that is left of the species are a few skins housed in natural history museums. Additionally, the National Museum of Natural History in Amsterdam has two whole specimens, and there are 3D images of them on their website ( that can be rotated using a mouse.

Unlike the kea, which occurs only on the South Island, the kaka occurs on both main islands and Stewart Island, along with a few other small off-shore islands. There are two kaka subspecies: The South Island Kaka (N. m. meridionalis) and the North Island Kaka (N. m. septentrionalis). The South Island variety is a bit larger than its North Island counterpart. Both tend to exist at larger densities on off-shore islands where they occur than on the mainland, where populations have decreased since European settlement due to the introduction of non-native predators, such as cats and stoats. Many of New Zealand’s native birds are not afraid of mammals and have no defense strategies to deal with them because they evolved in isolation from mammalian predators. In many areas of New Zealand, introduced predators have decimated native bird populations.

Meeting Wild Kakas: North Island

The first wild kakas I met were living at a wildlife sanctuary on the North Island. I went to Wellington after a conference I attended, with the intention of visiting Kapiti Island. This island, only eight kilometers from the mainland, serves as a sanctuary for several very rare bird species, because introduced predators have been eliminated from it. Parrot species found there include Red-fronted and Yellow-fronted Kakariki and North Island Kaka. Other very rare birds found there include the Takahe, a large, flightless, blue and green rail, and the Kokako, a member of the New Zealand wattle bird family. Less than 200 Takahe, and about 400-500 pairs of Kokako remain. Because it’s easier to keep alien predators off of islands than off of mainland sites, many populations of very rare species live primarily on smaller islands, rather than on either of the two main islands. However, some mainland sites manage to maintain populations of rare native birds by implementing predator-control programs. For example, the Kaori Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellington has a large, predator-proof fence around it to protect native birds including kaka and kakariki.

A North Island Kokako.

A North Island Kokako

Unfortunately, the boats to Kapiti Island did not sail during the few days I was in the area. That was disappointing, but the trip was by no means a total bust and still turned out quite well. I managed to see a flock of free-living kakas and several other very rare bird species by heading north to the Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre. This wildlife centre is completely devoted to the conservation of native New Zealand wildlife, and has an information centre including audio-visual displays, several large aviaries containing native birds, a Tuatara display, walkways through restored native forests, a kiwi house, a shop and a café. The center has bred rare kokakos for release into the wild on offshore islands and in the forest around the centre. North Island Brown Kiwis have also been released into the forest, where predator-control programs increase their chances of surviving and breeding. Other very rare birds bred there include the Campbell Island Teal (of which only 20 survive in the wild), and the Shore Plover (of which only 200 birds exist).

The centre also runs a kaka recovery program. After having been absent from the area for 50 years, kaka are now back in the forest around the centre and free-living flocks can be seen from the walkways through there. Wild kaka transported from Kapiti Island and captive-bred kakas were released into the forest in 1996. Other captive-bred kakas were released in following years. This kaka conservation project has been successful so far, because the birds have successfully raised several chicks in the wild and the population is increasing. To give the kakas a better chance at raising young, biologists put some predator-proof nesting boxes out for the kaka.


The wild kakas weren’t too difficult to find,because, like most parrots, they have a loud call. Since they call while they fly, I could easily spot birds flying solo or in pairs over the trees. However, several of the birds I spotted were resting in the trees, or preening, since it was mid-day – siesta time for parrots. The kakas blend in well with their surroundings so seeing the quiet, inactive ones took some effort. Other kakas were chewing the bark and twigs off of the trees. Many of the trees in the forest showed evidence of kaka-induced damage. However, unlike keas, which are often found near human settlements, kakas limit most of their destruction to trees. While some individuals will visit backyard bird feeders, most kakas stay in forests away from towns and cities.

Since many of the free-living kaka around the wildlife centre were captive bred, they are offered supplementary food at a feeding station each day at three in the afternoon. When I approached the feeding station before feeding time, several kakas started to follow me, hoping I had their food. They weren’t afraid of me, but they didn’t approach me too close, either. They were very interesting to watch and photograph and would go about their normal activities while I followed them with a camera or spied on them with binoculars, like a parrot paparazzo. The kakas were quite chatty, but they weren’t quite as loud at the keas I saw.


At three, workers at the centre added some corn and nuts to the parrot feeder. The parrots all rushed in to grab the best bits. Most preferred to grab a bit of food and dart off to a tree to eat it in peace. Those who stuck around the feeder tried to steal food from each other constantly. Often, one bird would approach another to take a nut or piece of corn, and the bird with the food would wind up dropping it to the ground. They were rather messy eaters and got crumbs and bits of corn all over the ground. Larger pieces of food that wound up on the ground were eventually cleaned up by the kakas, and songbirds and blackbirds would take the smaller pieces. Kakas usually stay off the ground, but not if there’s a good piece of food down there.

Before they are released, captive-bred kakas are given access to a similar feeder so they are used to eating from it. Staff can also monitor the birds from the feeders, and the feeder gives the public a great opportunity to view a free-living flock of wild parrots. From watching the kaka throughout the day, it seems that most do forage just fine on wild food as well. It was very nice to see, first hand, such great results from a parrot conservation project.


Wild Kaka Dietary Habits

Wild kakas eat a variety of food. Somewhat like lories, their tongues are bristled, which helps them lick up nectar. In the process of feeding on nectar, they help pollinate a lot of flowers. Some kaka will visit special bird feeders stocked with a sweet liquid, like big hummingbird feeders with a place for the birds to perch. Kakas also eat berries, seeds, tree sap, honeydew and some invertebrates. They will often dig grubs from rotting logs, and they can easily peel bark off of trees with their strong beaks to get the sap. They do not feed on the ground as often as keas do, and in fact, look a bit awkward skipping along on the ground. Kakas are forest birds and spend most of their time in trees. They are very acrobatic, and many can eat while hanging upside down by one foot.

Play Behavior in the Kaka vs. the Kea

Overall, kakas are somewhat less exploratory and playful than their mountain cousins, the keas. However, as is the case with most parrot species, young kakas will spend some time playing. Diamond and Bond (2004) studied the play behavior of both kakas and keas, and compared the play-styles of the two species. This represents one of a very small number of formal studies done on parrot play.

Play in the kaka is limited to young birds, while it is found in both adult and young keas. Keas will also play in groups of three or more birds, while kakas generally will not. Both species engage in rough play-fighting, but keas are much more aggressive about it than kakas. For example, kakas will use their powerful beaks to nip at each other in play, but they don’t seem to put enough pressure into their bites to make their opponent feel much. However, when a kea bites a playmate, the bird being bit will sometimes pull away like he’s been hurt, although playing keas rarely make each other bleed. Perhaps this difference is due to the fact that kakas have bigger, heavier beaks than keas. If the kakas put any pressure on another bird with their beaks, they would likely cause a serious injury.

Playful keas or kakas will jump on or push their opponents with their feet. Both species sometimes initiate play sessions by cocking their heads to the side, although this move is far more exaggerated in kakas. This behaviour seems to be the equivalent of the “play bow” in dogs, where the dog places his front feet on the ground while his rear stays up in the air. These behaviors let the animals around know that the following behavior is in play and is not to be taken as aggression. Like caiques or lories, keas and kakas also approach potential play partners by hopping.

Keas will play with objects, while kakas generally do not. What could account for that difference? In general, object play is found most often in generalist species like keas that do a lot of exploring. Crows and their relatives also fit this description, and like keas, are among the most behaviorally flexible of all birds. Adult kakas, despite being large-brained, intelligent birds, are more afraid of new objects and situations than keas tend to be. Kaka diets also include a smaller range of items than the typical kea diet. For example, kakas do not eat other birds or mammals like keas do. Perhaps its harsher environment means that the kea must accept a larger variety of food sources than the kaka. In turn, keas must be bolder and more exploratory to locate a greater variety of foods. Keas also stick around their parents for a longer time than kakas do, perhaps because it takes them longer to learn to find and eat the huge variety of foods they need.

South Island Kakas

After spending a few days on the North Island, I headed back to the South Island and eventually made my way to Stewart Island, which is a one hour ferry ride from the South Coast. Some introduced predators do exist on the island, although stoats – extremely efficient bird predators – are absent. As a result, the island is rich in birdlife and is a wonderful place for a bird watcher to spend a few days on. South Island Kaka, Red-fronted Kakariki and Yellow-fronted Kakariki are the parrot species present on the island. In my few days there, I saw several Red-fronted Kakariki and kaka right in Oban, the only town on the island. The kakas were not too difficult to spot at all, due to their habit of calling while in flight. They generally started calling very early in the morning, before the sun was fully up. I needed no alarm clock out there.

I saw plenty of interesting birds on Stewart Island, but the best place near Oban to see birds was undoubtedly Ulva Island. This small island, a five-minute boat ride from Oban, has been cleared of predators, and many rare birds have been reintroduced there. Kakas are present, and while I only saw a few of them far up in the trees while I was there, I saw plenty of evidence of their activity in the form of tree damage. Many trees had places where bark had been stripped off by kaka.

Unfortunately, I saw no kiwis, which are present on the island. Stewart Island is one of the few places were one has a decent chance of spotting a kiwi in the wild, since the kiwis there will forage in the daytime, shortly after the sun rises and before the sun sets. Most other kiwis are completely nocturnal. At any rate, I managed to see many kakariki, which were, of course, on my “must see” list. More on them and the other birds on Ulva Island next issue!

Literature Cited

Diamond, J., and Bond, A. B. 2004. Social play in kaka (Nestor meridionalis) with comparisons to kea (Nestor notabilis). Behaviour 141: 777-778.

Kaka Facts

Habitat: Native New Zealand forest on the North Island, the South Island, and Stewart Island. They are also common on many small offshore islands, such as Kapiti Island, Little Barrier Island, Tiritiri Matangi Island, and Ulva Island.

Conservation Status: Populations have declined on the mainland since European settlement.  Deforestation and the introduction of non-native predators are primarily responsible for the species declined. Introduced possums and wasps also compete with kaka for food.  Overall, the species is considered vulnerable.

Breeding Habits: Kakas breed from September to March. As is the case with most parrots, they use holes in tree trucks as nests.  Kakas will often enlarge the holes.  The female incubates the eggs for three weeks and she only leaves the nest twice daily to be fed by the male.  Chicks fledge 9-10 weeks after hatching, and they are fed for another week afterwards.

Other Habits: Outside the breeding season, they live in small, loose flocks of up to ten birds.  Some kakas on islands such as Kapiti are very bold and will approach people readily.

Additional Photos



Meet the Kea: New Zealand’s Mountain Parrot

November 2, 2008 2 comments

This is an article I wrote for Parrots Magazine issue 126. I also wrote an article on the Kaka and the Kakariki, which I’ll be posting later this week. This version is a bit longer than the one that appeared in the magazine.

Meet the Kea: New Zealand’s Mountain Parrot

Last year, I learned that one of the scientific societies I belong to was going to hold its annual conference in Christchurch, New Zealand, during June, 2007.  I was elated to hear this – after all, who wouldn’t want to visit such a beautiful country?  In particular, I enjoy bird watching and hiking, and New Zealand has many national parks and several unusual bird species.  Now I had a good reason to go there.

The charming, needle-nosed kiwi is generally the animal that most people think of when the subject of New Zealand wildlife is brought up.  However, to me, another animal came to mind when I realized I had the chance to visit New Zealand.  It’s an offbeat creature that is among the most intelligent and adaptable of all non-human animals.  I decided that I must see this animal in the wild on my trip.

The animal I refer to is a very clever, curious parrot.  And it’s no ordinary parrot. To most people, parrots are brightly-coloured inhabitants of steamy tropical rainforests.  However, this parrot makes its home at chilly, high-elevation sites that are often covered in snow.  It is also cloaked in plain, earth-toned feathers rather than the bright green or blue ones many parrots have.  I am referring, of course, to the kea.  New Zealanders I met often described keas as being “cheeky,” and there’s even a café on the West Coast called the “Cheeky Kea.”  Other verbs often used to describe it are “mischievous”, “roguish”, and “clownish” — all apt descriptions of this peculiar creature, as shall become apparent.

I asked a few people I know who have visited New Zealand where I could see keas.  Anyone I asked who had visited the mountainous national parks on the South Island had seen keas, and a few people assured me I would see them if I went to any of these tourist-frequented areas.  Two different people also noted that, “You won’t have to find the keas – they’ll find you!”

Scenery in Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Scenry in Westland Tai Poutini National Park.

So, after the conference, I took the TranzAlpine train across the Alps and rented a car in Greymouth.  I explored the beautiful and diverse Westland Tai Poutini National Park, but despite doing a fair bit of hiking, I found no keas.  So, I made my way south, and drove to Milford Sound, in Fiordland National Park.  The scenery along the road to Milford Sound is absolutely fabulous and includes rocky mountains, thick, emerald-green forests and several mirror-like lakes.  The road is often clogged with tour buses, but it wasn’t so bad in the winter and I lucked out and got a perfect, clear day for my drive.

I made it to Milford Sound shortly after most tour buses had left so I had the place almost to myself.  I was immediately treated to the site of a lovely White Heron, or Kōtuku, a bird that is very rare in New Zealand.  I also found some busy Silvereyes, a pair of black Oystercatchers, and some Paradise Ducks.  There were “Please Do Not Feed the Kea” signs around, so I figured there must be some keas in the vicinity.  For the moment, I decided to try to photograph the heron and the ducks.

The place was fairly quiet except for the ethereal song of the Bellbird.  I crept towards the heron and snapped some photos.  I then sat on a bench for a bit, to enjoy the view and the Bellbird’s songs, until a loud, shrill screech broke the silence. I had heard that sound before at an aviary at the zoo in Christchurch.  Keas!

The kea’s call is very distinctive sounding and really can’t easily be mistaken for any other bird noise.  The Maori actually named the bird after its call: Keeeaaaaaah!  I followed the noise and came across the site of a young kea sitting on a very short, stone fence.  He was hunched over with his wings out alongside his body, with the tips touching the ground.  With body feathers loose and fluffed out, beak down and open, and tail fanned out, he was squealing at another kea on the ground, who was digging around for roots.  I watched the juvenile kea pester his elder for a while, when I spotted a third one up on a roof, who was calmly surveying her surroundings.

What was the juvenile trying to convey with his odd posture?  At first, I figured that he must be begging the other kea for food.  But the posture wasn’t quite right, as begging parrots tend to look up at, not down to, the bird they are begging from.  With his head and wings down, the young kea could have been taking on a submissive posture, but the adult seemed to be backing away from the fluffed-up, noisy juvenile.

I found out later he wasn’t necessarily begging to the older kea, nor was he solely trying to be submissive.  He was taking on a posture that Judy Diamond and Alan Bond call “hunching” in their book, Kea: Bird of Paradox – the Evolution and Behavior of a New Zealand Parrot.  Of all age and sex classes, juvenile keas hunch most often and juvenile males do it more than females.  Juveniles most often hunch to adult males and they generally vocalize while they are hunching.

Now, keas – like most wild parrots – can be very possessive of food. However, adults will allow hunching juveniles to feed very close to them.  Additionally, adults will sometimes try to drive other keas away from a patch of food.  But if a juvenile kea hunches towards an adult, the adult will be much less likely to try to drive the juvenile away. Juveniles will also hunch to any adult, while they only beg from their male parent once fledged.  Later on in the evening, I saw a juvenile kea hunch to two adult keas in a short time period.

A hunching kea is being both mildly aggressive and deferential at the same time. He pushes the adult away, but indicates with his lowered beak and wings that he intends no real harm.  Generally, the adult was gentle towards the juvenile, except for one small incident.

At one point, when the adult wouldn’t move away from the juvenile, the juvenile stood up taller, fluffed out his head feathers and spread his wings out.  Now, if a kea wants to intimidate another kea, he’ll show the red under his wings, much like a matador provoking a bull with a red cape.  The adult wasn’t pleased with this insubordination, and the two got into a brief tussle, rolling around and nipping at each other.  The spat ended rather quickly, and the two went back to foraging and exploring like nothing had happened.  It’s rare for parrots to seriously injure each other over anything other than nest holes and adults will almost never harm juveniles.

How could I tell the juvenile from the adults?  It’s actually quite easy with keas.  Young keas have an orange eye ring and an orange lower mandible, while these are black in adults (over 3 years old).  The males and females are a bit more difficult to tell apart.  Males are usually about 20% heavier than females and their beaks are longer.  However, it can take a lot of kea watching to be able to tell the difference, so while I refer to certain birds in this article as “he” or “she,” I cannot say that I’m completely certain of what sex the birds I was watching were.

After sitting and watching the keas for a while, I could see why all the “Do Not Feed the Kea” signs are necessary.  This trio of keas was not scared of humans and it could be tempting to toss them treats, particularly when they look at you and wail.  However, it’s never a good idea to hand feed wildlife, because it could make them dependent on human food.  Additionally, the snacks humans eat are often unhealthy for animals, and being handfed can make wild animals very pushy and aggressive towards people.  However, these keas, while they let me get quite close, did not come to approach me.  They went about their business as though I wasn’t there.  Hopefully, that means people are obeying the signs.

That was a bit different from my experience with the Sulfur-crested Cockatoos I saw in Sydney during a stopover there on the way to Christchurch.  They were gorgeous birds and I loved watching them, but one did come to chew on my coat and shoes while I sat photographing them.  Later, I saw a few young people feeding them, so the bold behavior of the cockatoo was likely due to his expecting food from me.  He even poked around in my pockets (“Where are the snacks?”) before I stood up and walked off.  Luckily, these cockatoos still spent a lot of their time foraging on natural foods and most ignored all the people around.

Back to the keas: The three I saw displayed the characteristic inquisitive and destructive nature their species is famous (even infamous) for.  They spent a lot of time foraging for roots, but they also stopped to poke around on the ground near the rubbish bins behind a restaurant and the juvenile started ripping up some plastic he found on a roof.  Another adult jabbed at a tire for a bit.  The rubbish bins were shut tight and sealed so the keas couldn’t go in them to eat scraps and toss trash everywhere.  When keas forage in trash bags or piles of vegetation, they will literally toss non-food items out of the way after inspecting them.  They can be quite clever at getting access to trash and may simply shove aside heavy objects placed on the bins by people to keep the keas out.

No one will ever call the kea a fussy eater, since they will gladly eat almost anything that’s edible.  This includes the parts of over 100 plant species (especially the fruits and seeds), snails, insects, meat and garbage.  Some will drag shearwater chicks from their nests to consume them, and they will eat rabbits and rodents.  They will also scavenge on sheep carcasses, and some will even kill sheep by digging at their backs with their beaks.  The government declared a bounty on keas because of this in the 1880s, which lead to a sharp decline in the species’ abundance.  Keas are now a protected species because there are less than 5000 of them left.  Instead of shooting keas, ranchers can report problem birds to the department of conservation, who will send officers to investigate the problem and relocate problem birds.

I’ll admit I was skeptical when I read about the kea’s predatory behavior towards large mammals.  Really, parrots killing full-grown sheep?  But it’s true, and keas have been caught on video tape attacking sheep.  They will land on sheep’s backs and start pulling off wool, sometimes going farther by digging holes in the sheep’s skin.  The sheep can then die of infection. Keas will eat sheep carcasses, going for the kidneys first.

Before humans arrived, land mammals besides bats had been absent on New Zealand for millions of years, and keas – as bright and curious as they are – quickly figured out that sheep can be a very valuable food source.  This is almost certainly due to their tendency to examine new items.  In contrast to keas, most adult wild animals are wary of things they’ve never seen before, and that’s why they avoid people.  When sheep arrived in New Zealand, keas likely went to check them out by landing on them and picking at them with their beaks.  The wool was no doubt fun for them to pull out, and the sheep were probably like big, furry toys to them.  At some point, various birds figured out they could reach the edible flesh by digging at the sheep hard enough. Keas also examined the bodies of sheep that died naturally, and found out that they were a rich, nutritious food source.  All that fat and protein would be like winning a lottery jackpot for a kea, especially in winter when high-energy food sources are scarce and kea are at a real risk of starvation.

Aside from allowing them to learn to exploit new food sources, their intelligence also makes keas a challenge for biologists to trap.  Diamond and Bond (1999) report in their book that they needed to catch and band keas so they could identify individuals in their studies on them.  They set up a trap baited with butter – a fine delicacy for keas – and placed a drop net over it.  The keas quickly learned to get the butter while avoiding capture.  One bird would run over, jiggle the trap just enough to make the net drop, and then go back and eat the butter through the net.  Other birds would wait until another fellow kea tripped the net, and then they’d run in and try to steal the butter through the net before the biologists came to mark and release the trapped kea.  Others mastered the skill of quickly bolting under the net and grabbing some butter and running with it before the net fell.

Biologists doing studies on captive keas have also shown that these parrots have remarkable problem-solving skills.  For example, in Austria, biologists gave seven captive keas access to a long, wooden perch, in the middle of which hung a long string which had an object smeared with a mix of butter and egg yolk on the end of it.  This experiment was done by Dagmar Werdenich and Ludwig Huber and the results were reported in the journal Animal Behaviour in 2006. The intention was to see if the keas would figure out how to get the butter.  The only way they could do so would be to pull the string up, hold the pulled-up piece of string down on the perch with the foot, and repeat until the butter was in reach.  The butter was not accessible from the ground or from flight.  The keas had never handled string before.  This puzzle is extremely difficult for most animals to figure out, although ravens – another very intelligent animal – can often figure this out quite quickly.

What about the keas?  Well, the butter sure intrigued them, and all showed immediate interest in it.  One fledgling took several trials over the span of a month before he managed to get the butter.  His lack of foot coordination hampered his first efforts at getting it.  The adults, however, all figured out the right sequence of motions to do to get the butter in one trial, in six minutes or less.  One individual took a mere 9 seconds on her first trial and four out of six adult birds got the butter in 16 seconds or less.  The birds who took a few minutes to get the butter improved their performance in subsequent trials, showing that keas can learn from their mistakes.  There’s almost no chance that the sequence of actions the keas used to get the butter was instinctive, and some keas immediately solved the problem, showing that it wasn’t necessarily trial-and-error learning.  They had to use their insight to get their reward.

Back at Milford Sound, I watched the keas until it became dark and then I headed up to the motel.  However, that wasn’t the last of my kea sightings for the day.  I spotted one with my flashlight messing around under a truck while I was getting my luggage out of my car.  Seeing that, I was glad I got extra insurance on my rental car.  Keas will chew the parts off of cars, especially the wipers.  Keas will also pick through any other interesting items humans leave in their reach, including backpacks, coats, laundry on a clothesline, tents, or boots (the latter they’ll go for even is a person is still wearing them).  Keas have also been known to get into mountain huts through chimneys.  Once in, they’ll have a grand time shredding and ruining anything they find and scattering the remains about.  Dishes may be smashed, and even the door and window frames could be attacked and destroyed.  It’s generally the juveniles that cause this kind of trouble. After leaving their parents, young birds flock together until they’re old enough to start their own families.  While adult keas are curious and enjoy chewing things, juvenile keas are extra-inquisitive and destructive.

A juvenile kea plays with some garbage

A juvenile kea plays with some garbage

Later on, an hour after seeing the juvenile under the car, a group of keas, as people had predicted, found me.  I heard a familiar squealing sound outside my motel room door, and outside were three keas (the same from before?) milling around.  One juvenile was hunching to and pushing around two other keas, who were generally exploring the parking lot.  I watched them for a while and went back inside. I could hear them busily running around the boardwalk outside my room for another half hour or so.

While they must spend a lot of time foraging and resting, particularly in winter, keas also spend a lot of time exploring (even if not hungry) and playing.  Their play behavior is the most complex of any bird species.  Keas will throw items straight up in the air in play, sometimes jumping up exuberantly after the thrown item.  Such “object play” is extremely rare in birds, but keas will play, either alone or in a group, with any interesting items they come across.  Juveniles really enjoy playing tug-of-war and keep-away.  Much of their tussle play is similar to the wrestling that puppies will do, and like ferrets, they will also drag each other around by the back of the necks.  Juveniles do most of the playing, but adults are not adverse to a short play session as well.

I saw the keas again the next day, and two of them were digging in the dirt and exploring the territory around restaurants and houses.  The third kea was up a tree loudly sounding off, which enabled me to find the trio quite quickly.  I watched and photographed them for a while, until I finally had to head out to Invercargill, where I could take a ferry to Stewart Island to look for more wild parrots, kaka and kakariki.  More about them in the next postings!


Diamond, J., and Bond, A. B.  1999.  Kea, Bird of Paradox: The Evolution and Behavior of a New Zealand Parrot. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.

Werdenich, D., and Huber, L.  2006. A case of quick problem solving in birds: string pulling in keas, Nestor notabilis.  Animal Behaviour 71: 855-863.

Kea Facts – Sidebar

Scientific name: Nestor notabilis

Size: 48 cm tall, 700-1000 grams.

Description: Keas are primarily olive green, and most of their feathers have dark edges.  Under the wings are red feathers and feathers with yellow stripes.  The outer webs of the primary feathers are blue and the tail is bluish-green with dark tips. The legs are grey and the eyes and beak are dark.

Distribution: Mountainous areas of New Zealand’s South Island, particularly in national parks and areas above 600 m in elevation.

Habitat: Areas in and around human habitations, beech forests, subalpine scrub, and alpine grassland.

Diet: Omnivorous; keas will eat plants, insects and meat. They are generally found close to beech (Nothofagus) forests, and when these trees mast seed (every 4-6 years), the keas rely on them heavily for food.

Breeding: Occurs from July to January. Nests are usually in a crevice under rocks or large tree roots, or in a hollow, fallen log. Two to four eggs may be laid, but rarely do more than two young make it to fledging.  Incubation lasts 3-4 weeks and only the female incubates eggs. Once they hatch, the male feeds the female, and she feeds the chicks. Later, the male starts feeding them directly and when they fledge after 13 weeks, the male takes over all feeding.  Some males are polygamous.

More Kea Pictures:


UNL Centre for Avian Cognition – Publications of Judy Diamond.

-above link contains many scientific papers on keas and other related parrots.

University of Vienna, Kea Research Group

-Descriptions of research done on wild and captive kea at the University of Austria.

Kea Parrot Video

-Cool video showing some interesting kea behaviours.

Dont' Feed the Keas!
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