Kea – A New Zealand Bad Boy

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Over the years Jack Clyne and Rosie Stewart have shown me a great deal of their island country. It has been my pleasure to work with them and learn from them. I was prompted to do this post because Jack sent me the Kea book that he always brought on tour with us. It arrived the same day that Rosie informed me that her kōwhai tree was in flower and attracting a gang of tui that were wildly slurping the nectar – those two are a couple things to Google (I mean the plant and the bird not Rosie and Jack).

Rosie lives outside Auckland and Jack just north of Christchurch on the east coast of the South Island. Auckland is a city with a grand harbor located on the northern part of the North Island. There is one other largish island, Stewart, and many many small bits and pieces. The country of New Zealand has respected the Māori heritage and has used many Māori names for towns, plants, festivals, and animals. Thus the two names that you will now Google –right?

This bad boy parrot is sometimes called the clown of the mountains.
It may surprise you that a post on a parrot doesn’t include either the hot humid tropics of South America or the vast dry wonders of Australia. This is a parrot like few others; and those few others are also from the land of the Long White Cloud.
Aotearoa, or New Zealand to the late comers, has been a land alone for a long time. This fact, and the total (excepts for a bat or two) lack of mammals allowed the birds to develop all sorts of exceptional behaviors and looks.
From a naturalists point of view, it wasn’t “spoiled” by humans until after Captain Cook and Joseph Banks arrived in 1769. It may have been visited by the Chinese very early on and the Māori and Dutch later – but it was the expanding empires of France, Spain, and Great Britain that really consumed the great oceans. It was Great Britain that controlled and developed both Australia and New Zealand. Cook arrived well before English annexation (1840) and his travels opened the area to many other adventurers. Sealing, whaling, and nutmeg collecting (more valuable than gold for a while) drew explorers and entrepreneurs from all over the world.
When I say “spoiled” I mean that the native environment was altered, invaded, and changed. Plants and animals that had adapted to a particular and successful way of life were exposed to, and wiped out by, creatures with another way of life. Captain Cook’s ships probably brought rats and mice and maybe mosquitoes. He released chickens in anticipation of a free-range buffet in anticipation of his next visit (Cook made three trips to New Zealand). On his last two trips he carried ducks, chickens, cattle, sheep, and goats (perhaps their genes persist in the Arapawa Island goats). It was recorded that he presented a breeding pair of goats to a Māori chief and released several pair on the island called Arapawa.
This is the Kea. Its call is KEEEAAA, loud and shrill. The noise carries up and down the mountain valleys. The lead image of this post are the Mountains in the Southern Alps near Mount Cook I lead with this post not merely because it is a nice scene but because those high, cold, windy, snow-covered reaches are the home of the Kea; it is a parrot of the mountains. They roll in the snow and slide down the slopes on feathered sleds. They are able to survive here because they are smart and they are problem solvers. They are hardy and have good memories.
Here is a Kea looking to disassemble a concrete brick with reenforcing rod imbedded in it. Given the time they probably could make this into a pile of gravel and another pile of paper clips. They tinker, they explore, they experiment, and they figure things out.
This one wishes he had invented the screw driver or socket wrench as taking apart this truck rack would be so much easier. Tinkering with metal is no where near as successful as removing rubber gaskets from automobile wind shields (windscreens to some of you).
Driving the mountain road, NZ State Highway 94, from Te Anau to Milford Sound requires passing through the one-way Homer Tunnel deep in the Fiordland mountains. As you sit and wait for your turn to enter the three-quarters of a mile long hole in the rock, the vehicle is often inspected by a curious Kea or two. Dropping down to the front hood (bonnet) they will look over the wind shield and examine the rubber gaskets and windshield wipers – perhaps taking a nip or pulling a strand or two before the light changes and the car drives deep into the mountain.
The tunnel is narrow and seemingly unfinished though now paved; the walls are as the sledge hammers left them; rough and rugged and as permanent as any mountain on earth. It was a depression era project and almost all the digging and chipping done by the gnarled hands of five men with picks and shovels. The Darran Mountain area where the tunnel is located is plain and simply gorgeous; especially if you get there on one of the few dry and sunny days, The workers at the site eighty years ago recorded that there is direct sunlight only half the year; due both to rainy weather and the mountains that allow a very late morning sun and an earlty afternoon sunset. Having been there several times in the rain I can say that the rainy days are also spectacular as hundreds of waterfalls and cascasdes develop to drain water for the near vertical mountain walls.
Another roadside Kea; actually that is pretty much the only way to see them. The mountains need to be flown over and hiking to find Kea is a challenge. Yes, they are best seen at the tunnel or at rest areas where they have learned that people will offer them a cracker just for being there. It shouldn’t happen and DOC (the Department of Conservation) posts against it but people are not alway aware of the impact they might be making. Because the birds are so rare and so important many, perhaps most, have been caught and ringed (banded). This bird shows a silver band on the right leg and there are probably one or two color bands on the left leg. This research allows DOC to follow families and individuals as well as habitat preference and territorial range.
One of the DOC signs implies that you should keep your eyes on your shoes.
My favorite time at the Hermitage Hotel at the base of Mount Cook is just around sunrise when the Kea will arrive at the maintenance area and putter around the leavings from the day before. It is as if they are looking for bits and pieces to finish a project.

I mentioned that there are several New Zealand parrots and a few parakeets as well. The Māori names for the parrots all seem to have the same base sound; Kea, Kakapo, and Kaka. The Kakapo is a large, nocturnal, flightless parrot that is now very rare and restricted to a few predator free islands.

This parrot is one of the creatures impacted by the European predators that arrived on the islands; cats, stoats, possums, and dogs became predators of the many flightless birds; goats, deer, sheep, and now cattle have in turn greatly altered the native vegetation. New Zealand has an active program to remove these alien creatures (and plants) and try to return to the avian rich wildlife it had before humans arrived.

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