The kea is the only alpine parrot on the planet, and is one of ten parrot species endemic to New Zealand.  It belongs to the same family as the precious moss potato, the kakapo, and the colourful kaka.  Its clownish nature is so well-known that a group of kea is called a circus!


Kea are known for being utterly fearless around humans. This can be both a blessing and a curse; on the one hand, many tourists fall in love with the kea’s comical antics.  On the other, this fearlessness combined with the parrot’s natural curiosity has led them to cause significant damage to property.  Kea have been known to rifle through clothes, open backpacks, strip windshield wipers and rubber sealant from cars.  They are also unrepentant thieves, flying away with anything that catches their fancy.  One kea flew through the open window of a camper van, making away with a bag containing $900 of a tourist’s money.  And a Scottish tourist got the shock of his life when a kea flew off with his passport!  The tourist in question stated: “My passport is somewhere out there in Fiordland. The kea’s probably using it for fraudulent claims or something. I’ll never look at a kea in the same way.”


The kea is beautiful, intelligent, hilarirous..and in serious trouble.  In the last decade kea numbers have plummeted, and there are many reasons why.  Like many New Zealand species, the kea has been greatly affected by invasive mammalian predators such as rats, stoats, and possums.  A study has shown that only about two thirds of kea chicks survive to fledging due to nest raids by these predators.  Unfortunately, government efforts to eradicate these creatures are also affecting the kea, as the curious birds will often consume poisoned bait and be caught in traps.  

The kea’s curiosity and intelligence may also work against it.  Many kea have died from lead poisoning, as they will chew on the roofs and gutters of old buildings, which often contain lead.  In addition, chewing on buildings and cars leads kea into increasing conflict with humans.

Humans are deeply divided in their opinion about the kea, and both of them can be harmful.  Many people love the kea, and travel to the national parks just to see them.  These same people, however, charmed by the kea’s fearlessness, will feed them unsuitable and harmful foods such as chips, ice cream, and chocolate.  This also encourages the kea to seek out people, which can lead them to approach those on the other side of the spectrum.  For other humans consider the kea a terrible nuisance due to its attacks on sheep and destructive nature.  Despite protection by the government, many locals still actively hunt and shoot kea.

There may be as few as 1000 kea left in the wild.

[Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada] argues that ‘any time Hawaiians—or any other native people, for that matter—come out in force to push for more respect for our culture and language or to protect our places from this kind of destruction, we are dismissed as relics of the past, unable to hack it in the modern world with our antiquated traditions and practices.
—  David Malie, Science, Time, and Mauna a Wākea: The Thirty-Meter Telescope’s Capitalist-Colonialist Violence, Part II

The kea can sometimes be a bit too smart for its own good, in fact, particularly when it comes to finding (or stealing) food.  The video below shows some kea breaking into sealed garbage bins.

Even more remarkable was a case last fall in New Zealand’s Milford Sound, specifically a particular one-way tunnel.  Workers were puzzled when traffic cones in the tunnel kept moving around, apparently one their own.  A CCTV camera solved the problem; the local kea were waiting for the sound of approaching cars, and then dragging the cones into the middle of the road.  Some researchers speculate that the intelligent birds figured out that cars would slow down or stop for these cones, and were trying to stop traffic so that they could beg for food!


Timelapse watch of Mauna Kea, the highest mountain on Hawaii, on a clear evening with the stars above. 


Adult kea hold a breeding territory all of their own, but that doesn’t mean this parrot is antisocial!  Juvenile kea in particular form large, noisy flocks that have a loose hierarchy.  These flocks can travel through the territories of mated pairs without fear, and often the couple will join the group for feeding and socialising.  This adolescent phase lasts for a surprisingly long time; young kea leave the nest at around 100 to 150 days of age, and will not settle down with a mate until they are around four years old.  This extended juvenile period may allow the kea to develop very complex behaviours and learn various new foraging techniques.