The rise of the selfie has finally put New Zealand’s mercurial mountain parrot, the kea, in the picture.
For long considered a pest by many New Zealanders, particularly farmers, the threatened kea is basking in the spotlight of celebrity.
New Zealanders are learning to live with the super-intelligent kea – the only bird known to seek out humans for play – at a time when its numbers are falling. In many ways the promotion of the kea has a parallel with the Tasmanian devil, an endangered animal becoming an unlikely tourist attraction in Tasmania.
The devil, though, had a head start, initially becoming Taz, the star of Hollywood cartoons. The kea’s awakening has been slower and the parrot owes its new-found fame to television documentaries. From the time renowned wildlife film-maker David Attenborough described it as his favourite bird, the kea has been a must-see for tourists visiting New Zealand’s South Island, where the alpine landscape is its stronghold.
First photographs of kea, now the selfie. Images of kea antics and interaction with humans have been beamed across the world. As smart-phone wielding tourists have quickly discovered, the kea is more than happy to pose for shots in return for a reward of food.
It’s not uncommon for tourist buses – mainly carrying Chinese visitors who form the second biggest tourism segment after Australians – to pull over on mountain roads when kea come into view, notoriously the car park at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel, the gateway to Fiordland and Milford Sound with its picture-postcard Mitre Peak.
Sometimes queues to photograph kea at this and other locations rival the lines that extend around the block holding the Furgburger fast-food joint in the mountain resort town of Queenstown, listed by the Lonely Planet guides as selling one of the best hamburgers in the world. A selfie outside Furgburger, along with one taken with a kea, has become the must-have selfie from a New Zealand tour.
It’s easy to see why the kea is such a crowd-puller. The kea has human traits which cannot be ignored, as strong as those attached to the waddling penguin in the waiter’s suit, or the wise owl who has the mannerisms of a judge. And these traits are proving a green tourism bonanza for New Zealand.
But the new-found status as tourists’ most popular bird has brought with it headaches for conservationists trying to save this threatened species from both itself, and those who want to join it in play.
The rush by foreign visitors to see kea in the wild has reinforced the message that kea and mankind do not mix. So much so that visitors are being discouraged from seeking out kea in some of the areas where they are known.
Among tourists hoping to see these mountain celebrities I was to be disappointed one glorious late-summer morning not to find them at a once popular kea location in the high sierra, the hamlet of Arthur’s Pass. Like gunslingers in a Hollywood western, kea had left town at the urging of the local sheriff. The kea had finally heeded the message that the human environment of Arthur’s Pass was no place for an alpine parrot.
To say they had been driven out by the locals, the folk tired of their misbehaviour, would be unfair. In truth, the hamlet’s residents love the kea and are part of a sustained conservation effort to ensure the survival of these vulnerable birds. The visitors seeking out kea are to blame. They teach the birds bad habits.
Once a tourist drawcard, these roguish avian symbols of the mountains have become baddies through no fault of their own. Signs everywhere warn of the parrots’ menace, their “potential to cause mayhem”.
Entertaining and lovable, but always displaying a destructive streak, the kea haven’t exactly retreated to the hills. Tourists disappointed not to find them at the eateries of Arthur’s Pass – as I was¬ – can drive a few kilometres to the scenic summit on the road from Christchurch to the western coastal town of Greymouth and find them there, waiting in ambush at the car park, displaying their trademark disdainful, rolling swagger. If ever a bird had a John Wayne walk, this is it, but tourists captivated by kea continue to lead them astray, feeding them inappropriate food and encouraging them to dance with death on the tarmac.
Although anthropomorphism is known to be a false concept in wildlife study, some bird species demand it, as the hard-staring kea demands a hand-out from a tourist at a lonely car park on a mountain pass.
The signs designed to discourage interaction with the kea are part of a program of action across the New Zealand mountains to keep kea and human apart. But such well-meaning plans always appear to run into trouble when dealing with the world’s only mountain parrot. The kea might belong in the remote alpine environment, out of reach of humans, but how do you keep them there?
I first learned of kea antics when a reader of the regular column on bird-watching I write for the Mercury newspaper in Hobart, gave me an account of their sense of fun.
The reader – responding to a column on bird behaviour – said he and his family had been snowed in at a hut on Mount Cook and, to allow light to reach its windows, they dug a sloping channel about three metres long through the snow to the panes. Kea quickly assembled to watch what they were doing and then spent hours sliding down the “skylight”.
“They really had a great time,” wrote the reader. “This was a pure fun occupation as they jostled and pushed to get a turn sliding down any old way, on their backs, feet in the air, on their tummies penguin-fashion or more often two together. They were just a mess of feet and feathers.”
After reading this, I decided I just had to see these birds and their riotous behaviour for myself and, during a 2000km kea odyssey across the South Island, speaking to New Zealanders with experience of kea on the ground, I soon discovered that each week seems to bring a new first in kea antics.
Kea are among a group of super-intelligent birds, along with some other species of parrot and members of the crow family, that have a level of intelligence to rival the higher mammals. Kea’s brain power and curiosity enable them to survive in the harsh mountain terrain. They can solve logical puzzles, such as pushing and pulling things in a certain order to get to food, and will work together to achieve a certain objective. Above all, they are known for their playfulness and novelty-seeking nature.
Human interaction with the kea in colonial and post-colonial times has not always had a happy outcome. An estimated 150,000 kea were killed from the 1860s onwards as a result of a government bounty introduced after conflict with sheep farmers. Kea were, and still are, said to attack sheep, riding on their backs, piercing skin and feeding on the animal fat below. Although reports of such attacks have been exaggerated, it is generally accepted there is some truth to these observations made over time.
The birds are only found in the mountains of the South Island in a vast habitat of some 3.5 million hectares. And there, sadly, kea are under threat. Numbers have plummeted as a result of predation by non-native animals and the kea’s association, good and bad, with humans and human infrastructure. Conservationists are raising the alarm after years of crashing numbers, with the population estimated to be as low as 1,000-5,000 birds.
Recent studies by the Kea Conservation Trust have found two-thirds of all chicks never reach fledgling stage. Because nests are placed on or near the ground, eggs and nestlings are eaten by stoats, rats, possums and feral cats. And there is a suspicion that many kea are still killed by unsympathetic farmers.
“Kea are one of the most maligned of New Zealand birds, as well as one of our most loved,” says Tamsin Orr-Walker, chair of the Kea Conservation Trust.
Despite their protected status, kea still divide New Zealanders between those who enjoy the cheeky parrots’ animated nature and those who curse their destructive habits, such as damaging cars, tents and buildings in alpine environments, attacking stock, raiding crops and habitually stealing food.
Kea are not only famous for their insatiable curiosity, but the dexterity of their multi-tool, scimitar beak. It has functions to rival a Swiss Army knife, and more. It enables them to not only crack nuts but also to pick locks and zips on backpacks, and snap off car aerials. If they are not fed inappropriate food – which affects their health and, worse, poisons them – they will certainly find it.
When not begging and stealing food, the kea penchant for attacking buildings also exposes them to danger in the form of lead-poisoning, lead being used in the roofs and gutters of old-fashioned alpine dwellings such as huts and shearing sheds.
Lead poisoning was particularly difficult to tackle, Orr-Walker said, as there were thousands of old buildings dotted around remote parts the South Island that could poison inquisitive kea. The effects of lead poisoning on the birds were disastrous, including brain damage and death.
Although kea have been totally protected since 1986, the New Zealand Department of Conservation and the Kea Conservation Trust continue to record intentional kea deaths each year, either shot, bludgeoned or poisoned. These deaths are thought to be under-reported.
The biggest threat to the kea, though, is predation by introduced mammal species, and to counter this traps are increasingly being laid in kea nesting areas to catch predators, feral cats emerging as an increasing problem in recent years.
Orr-Walker said efforts to educate the public about kea have gone a long way towards New Zealanders learning to love and respect the parrot but, if the kea cause financial loss or begin to hit people’s bottom line, that is when conservation officials still hear stories of kea being killed.
“One of the most interesting things about kea is they are one of the few wild species that seek out humans. That is really rare, and it is that inquisitive nature that is getting them into trouble because a lot of the ways humans interact with them is endangering their survival.”
Just before I arrived in New Zealand, kea had been found to be causing disruption to traffic at along the road to Milford Sound. During road works, kea had been seen to play with road cones placed to alert drivers to danger, dragging the cones from the side of the road and placing them on the road itself.
Orr-Walker said the birds were probably moving the road cones for fun, but didn’t discount the theory that the clever parrots strategically moved the cones into the path of oncoming vehicles, forcing the cars to slow down and allowing the parrots to beg for food.
The seemingly resourceful kea behaviour prompted an equally resourceful response. Concerned for the bird’s safety along the Milford Sound route, conservationists created a roadside “gym” for the inquisitive and energetic birds designed to keep them intellectually engaged and away from road cones and traffic.
The gym features ladders, spinning flight devices, swings and climbing frames, and has proved popular.
Dozens of kea are hit and killed every year on New Zealand roads, and kea gyms were catching on in other parts of the country, too, including Nelson and Arthur’s Pass.
Meanwhile, cameras have been monitoring the original kea gym and the footage is being reviewed by academics at the University of Canterbury who are trying to create new methods to stimulate the kea’s active mind.
Research into kea behaviour has picked up in recent years, and some surprising discoveries have been made. These point to kea being the first known non-mammal to show contagious emotion, joining the ranks of humans, rats, and chimpanzees. Spreading goodwill, kea have also been found to make a specific call to put other members of the flock in playful mood. Scientists already knew that kea make a non-threatening warbling sound while playing with other kea but, since the birds also warble alone, the noise was thought to be simply an expression of pleasure.
To find out if kea use their play call to spread emotion among other kea, researchers led by Raoul Schwing, of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria, went to Arthur’s Pass and broadcast recordings of several bird calls in earshot of wild kea. These included kea play calls, other kea calls, and calls of other birds in the area. The team then observed how the wild kea reacted to each sound. The effect was clear: when kea of both sexes heard play calls, they exhibited more and longer play behaviour than when they heard the other calls.
In many instances, the kea were immediately animated to play, but not by joining ongoing play already happening. “Instead, they spontaneously started to play with the bird next to them, or played solitarily in the air or with an object,” said Dr Schwing.
This suggests that the play call does not “invite” kea to play, but rather puts them in a playful frame of mind by affecting their emotions. For that reason, kea play calls can be compared with infectious laughter in people, according to the study, published in March 2018 in the journal Current Biology.
Kea play a lot—by themselves, with others, on the ground, or in the air. While aloft, they perform aerobatics and chase each other. Playing with objects is usually solitary, with a bird manipulating an object with its beak and feet, but it can also involve birds tossing an object between each other. IMAGES
The birds may also tussle, a “kea version of the wrestling one sees in cats”, according to Dr Schwing. “Here, one kea might even present itself on its back to invite another to join. Although it is important not to anthropomorphise animal behaviour, it is very clear to anyone working or living with kea that they are intelligent, social, and take pleasure in playing with each other — much like we see in other cognizant species, including ourselves.”
Orr-Walker notes the new study’s results are rigorous and thorough and will “hopefully provide a better insight into the private lives and characters of these birds, which have for more than a century been heavily persecuted”.
“With greater understanding of the kea’s unique qualities and interactions,” Orr-Walker says, “we hope there will be a corresponding increase in empathy which ultimately will be what saves this species from extinction.”
The kea in 2017 was crowned New Zealand’s bird of the year. In subsequent years the vote in the annual poll went to an endemic wood pigeon, the kereru, and this year the hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, but the kea’s fans still savour the earlier victory.
Orr-Walker said of the 2017 win the kea had finally achieved acclaim and in some ways the species was more representative of New Zealanders than the official national bird, the reclusive kiwi.
“A lot of people are saying the kea should be our national bird because they so much epitomise what it is to be a New Zealander: adventurous and up for a challenge and maybe a bit misunderstood,” she said.
“I think New Zealanders are starting to realise how special kea are; they are interactive birds and seek out humans, which is very unusual. The fact they are declining from our mountains is alarming.”
There are 168 bird species in New Zealand and a third are considered under threat. Dozens are on the endangered list. Some species have dwindled to a few hundred individuals tucked away in isolated pockets of the country.
Two days after the excursion to Arthur’s Pass, I’m following the tourist buses travelling the long and winding highways at the southern end of the South Island, still on the kea hunt and not satisfied with my sightings at Arthur’s Pass, which did not reveal the kea in flight.
They are big birds, about the size of the sulphur-crested cockatoos I regularly see at home in Tasmania, and they display a shimmering, olive green plumage, the feathers scalloped, edged with yellow. It’s important to see them in flight because the wings are russet on their undersides, and the upper tail feathers are painted in the same hue.
After travelling 100 kilometres south from the town of Te Anua, negotiating the borders of Fiordland and its beach forests, the road starts to climb towards the mountains and I finally find kea lying in wait at the car park of the Homer Tunnel. It’s now raining and the kea stand like sentries, motionless. A thin drizzle has soaked kea feathers, making them appear stiff and spiky, like quills standing in an inkpot of old, the rain also casting a damp blanket over the glossy, shimmering sheen that needs sunlight to reveal its glory.
If I didn’t known better, I’d say there is a hint of menace about this band of kea. Muggers, bandits, highwaymen of the high country. Two of the birds fix me with a cold stare, while a third, a juvenile identified by the yellow patch of skin at the base of its beak, the cere, paces the tarmacadam in long jerky slow strides, as if operated by clockwork. The youngster travels between the three or four cars parked in the car park, urging the occupants to toss food.
No interest in play on this cold, rainy day at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel, burrowing beneath the cold grey Darren Mountains – the kea only have fast food in mind.