Meet the Kea: New Zealand’s Mountain Parrot
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!”
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.
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:
-above link contains many scientific papers on keas and other related parrots.
-Descriptions of research done on wild and captive kea at the University of Austria.
-Cool Youtube.com video showing some interesting kea behaviours.