Famed for its olive-green plumage, scarlet underwings, keen intelligence and its rare attempts to feed on both dead and live sheep, the unique kea parrot of New Zealand draws attention from bird lovers and conservationists throughout the world.
The kea parrot needs this attention. With many believing that its numbers have declined slowly but steadily in the past 100 years, organizations like the Department of Conservation of New Zealand, the Kea Conservation Trust and the Animal Health Board now recognize the need to study the birds more and determine how best to protect them.
Photo Courtesy of Franny Cunninghame
The kea parrot has a distinctive long, thin and curved bill.
Taking on the task of counting the current numbers of kea parrots and radio-tracking groups of the birds isn't easy, especially since it is classified as a nationally endangered species in New Zealand. Kea parrots favor forested areas among mountainous regions, where they make nests within the ground and forage in the mountain tops. In winter, the flocks concentrate on breeding and disappear among the forests. The kea's omnivorous diet requires much time spent high and low foraging for food — roots and grub are dug out from the ground in the mountains and forest floors, and foods like berries and seeds of rimu, totara and beech trees are found in the tall tree tops, as well as honeydew and nectar of flowers.
Notoriously, the kea parrot will also scavenge dead animals like deer in pursuit of high-fat foods and has been witnessed attacking the occasional live sheep to access the large fatty deposits above a sheep's kidneys, said Josh Kemp, scientific officer for the Research and Development Group at the Department of Conservation of New Zealand.
"Some keas living near sheep stations probably learn about the fat by scavenging dead sheep, then they figure out that they can reach it on a live sheep, too," Kemp said.
The distinctive shape of the kea's bill enables it to pierce the skin of these mammals: The bill is long, thin and curved, unlike most parrot species' bills. Its long, spindly legs set it further apart from other parrot species. Nonetheless, the kea is still classified as a parrot: Two toes point backwards on the foot and are used for climbing, and the bill — with its moveable lower mandible — serves as a climbing tool as well.
But the kea's occasional preying habits may speak volumes of its intelligence.
"It may happen because there are sheep and because the kea are very innovative," said Gyula Gajdon, guest scientist at the University of Vienna Department of Neurobiology and Cognition Research. "For me, as a biologist, it is equally interesting to ask, 'How do they manage to open hinged lids of big rubbish bins, or why do they start to prey on mice?'"
Bird experts agree that the kea is a distinctive parrot.
"Even kaka, the closest relative of kea, provides a quite different setting of main biological features," Gajdon said.
The kaka parrot may share the scarlet underwings that kea parrots have and are also classified under the genus Nestor, but kaka parrots are not as intelligent, and kaka parrots nest in tree trunk holes in winter, while kea parrots nest in the ground during summer, Kemp said.
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the kea bird is its smart, curious personality. The diurnal parrots are social creatures, foraging in flocks and keeping in touch with each other with contact calling. Young keas are especially active and playful, Gajdon said.
"Especially young birds are the most bold to investigate new objects, play with them, test their affordances and even integrate them in social play," Gajdon said. "The camera man Mike Lemon nicely said that you miss kea when you go home."
The parrot's bold and investigative tendencies, however, can often get the kea into trouble. After any destructive bout with human belongings, the birds put themselves at risk.
"[…] newspapers in New Zealand report from time to time that kea [parrots] were shot by upset people," Gajdon said. "The Department of Conservation stresses that people do not feed kea so that they are not attracted to human settlements."
Inarguably, humans play a significant role in the population numbers of kea birds. Kemp said that lead poisoning, car accidents, entrapment in garbage bins, angry farmers, critter traps and pet poisons have all contributed to kea deaths in past years. However, introduced predators like the stoat, a ferret-like animal, also threaten ground-breeding birds like the kea, Gajdon said.
Thankfully, conservation and research efforts have been extended recently to help ensure that kea parrots are thoroughly studied and can thrive safely in their forested environments.
"There is some research activity, and while scientists in New Zealand are more conservation-oriented, researchers from other countries are more focusd on the bird's cognition and exploration behavior," Gajdon said. Understanding such behavior is important to help explain the destructive nature of the birds to resolve human-kea conflicts, he added.
At Gajdon's university, an intensive research program is underway to research the social and technical intelligence in the birds, both in the wild and in captivity. The Konrad Lorenz Institute for Ethology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences keeps its own flock of kea to study the parrots in captivity. And New Zealand's Department of Conservation is also planning several large-scale projects that will include a long-term counting program to examine kea parrot population numbers throughout the South Island during the next 10 to 15 years.
"In collaboration with the Kea Conservation Trust and the Animal Health Board, we will be radio-tracking four lots of 20 to 30 kea parrots through four aerial 1080 operations next winter," Kemp said. "Then, at two of the sites, we will be monitoring nesting success after the aerial 1080 and comparing it with nesting success in adjacent areas where pets are not controlled."
Kemp recommends visiting the KCT website for more details on the upcoming projects.