KEA

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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!

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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.”

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Kea look somewhat unimpressive on the ground, with their backs and breasts a dull, olive grey in colour.  When they are in flight, however, it’s a whole different story.  The kea’s underwings are a vivid orange-red, its flight feathers are a rich blue-green, and its rump is crimson.  These feathers aren’t just beautiful, they may have a vital function in communication; the red-orange that paints the undersides of the bird’s wings is visible in the UV spectrum, invisible to humans, but brilliant to birds!

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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.

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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.

New Zealand party! As a New Zealander I’m always on the lookout for specimens from back home and this weekend I was lucky enough to receive a taxidermy Kea!

Kea (on the right) are highly intelligent birds and the world’s only alpine parrot! Nesting in burrows and crevices in tree roots, they are known for problem solving and the preparation (and utilization) of tools.

These cheeky critters (often called “Clowns of the Mountains”) are notorious for stripping all of the rubber off of cars, stealing from people’s backpacks and flying away with unguarded items. They are endangered in New Zealand - the victim of a poorly thought out bounty that plummeted their population from 150,000 individuals to below 5,000. Their numbers have been increasing since 1986 when they became protected.

To the left is a North Island Brown Kiwi, one of the world’s most famous flightless birds. They are endangered (with ~35,000 individuals left on Earth), they hold the record for laying the largest egg relative to body size!

The introduction of invasive dogs, cats and ermines is decimating the native species of New Zealand, with a 94% mortality rate of kiwi chicks where mammalian culls are not carried out.