With a threat classification of ‘nationally endangered’ and facing multiple survival challenges, their prospects are not looking good. There has never been a more important time to learn more about these charismatic birds so that we can help them survive in the future.
The South Island is home to a rare species of parrot, the kea (Nestor notabilis). Kea are unique for many reasons. Firstly, they are the world’s only alpine parrot, found in the Southern Alps and other high mountain ranges. Kea habitat is typically montane forests, subalpine shrubland and the alpine zone, although they may also visit coastal forests.
Secondly, kea show high levels of intelligence and curiosity, adaptations which promote survival in a harsh environment. Scientists have found that kea easily solve novel problems, working cooperatively to obtain a food item. Being clever enables wild kea to forage across a larger area for a wide range of foods including fruits, leaves, shoots, nectar, seeds, insect larva, worms and grubs. Unfortunately, a taste for flesh caused the persecution of at least 150,000 kea from 1860 to the 1970’s. As pioneer farmers began grazing their sheep at higher altitudes, kea learned that biting into the back of a sheep exposes the fat around the kidneys, killing the sheep in the process. To protect their flocks from kea attacks, farmers had the government’s permission to kill kea for a bounty, which continued until 1971. Kea became fully protected in 1986.
The third special kea trait is their lack of fear, leading to conflict with humans. Skifields are a mecca in winter for people and kea. Treble Cone skifield near Wanaka attracts about 15 kea who forage around tables and rubbish bins. Unfortunately many human foods are toxic to kea, such as chocolate. Skiers sometimes leave their food unattended or deliberately feed kea without realising the negative effects on kea such as addiction or toxicity. A lack of fear makes nesting kea easy targets for fierce introduced predators like stoats. Kea are also vulnerable to lead poisoning due to their habit of destroying lead flashings on mountain huts. Poisoning due to eating toxic baits is another threat for these inquisitive birds. Curious juvenile kea at busy alpine carparks can get hit by oncoming vehicles. Some birds have even been caught in possum traps. The odds really are stacked against our feathered friends.
Estimates of wild kea numbers range from 3000 to 7000 birds across an area of 3.5 million hectares. Resourcefulness is helping kea to survive in the wild, but for how long? And with the warming effects of climate change starting to be felt in NZ, how will kea be impacted? Fortunately, the mountain ranges around Wanaka still support populations of kea. We offer two guided tours to locations where kea are often seen: the Misty Mountains Heli Hike Tour and Alpine Lakes Heli Hike Tour. These are small group tours which include a 2-3 hour hike and scenic flights to/from the walking area. Kea can spot us a mile off and often fly over to see what we are doing. Sitting on a mountain ridge, gazing out over snow-capped mountains to the deep valleys below, observing the antics of kea, is an experience that will never be forgotten.
Further information about kea can be found on the Kea Conservation Trust website.