by Alexandra Kelly ©

Kea - Nestor notabilis. Photograph courtesy of Dawn Stewart New Zealand

Conservation of New Zealand’s natural heritage has not been up to standard, and needs desperately to be upgraded and constantly monitored. For instance 44 endemic birds are extinct, 90% of wetlands lost, and forests reduced from 78% to 25% of total land area. Only 10% of tussock grassland that existed in 1840 remains today. There are 300 plants and animals in a threatened state at present.

New Zealand’s indigenous parrots are declining at an incredible rate, due now largely to introduced predators. Our only mammals are two bats, but now possums, rats, cats, stoats, wasps, deer, goats etc, either eat the parrots food, or kill adults, eggs and young. In particular the stoat predates the incubating hens of Kaka continually.

Kea is our most plentiful parrot, they are semi-nocturnal and the only parrot in the world to attack and kill animals. Because of this and its destructive behaviour to people’s property, killing of Kea continues, even with laws against this practice. The history of slaughter legally carried out in the past would be one of the worst ever to happen anywhere in the world. Bounty hunting it was called, and in the 1920s people received 10 shillings per beak, this being equivalent of $65 today. Bounty hunters were employed by high country runholders, as they were loosing too many sheep to the killer Kea.

Before 1898, no full record of those killed was kept, but an estimate of 20-30,000 has been roughly established. Between 1898 – 1929 a complete record shows 54,204 Kea beaks were paid for. This continued and in 1943 – 1945, 6819 beaks were brought in, and killing continued until the late 1950s. Total estimates of 150,000 Kea slaughtered in 100 years.

Not until 1970 was the Kea given partial protection. The survival of Kea has been miraculous, and its ability to survive on almost any food in dumps or dropped on roadsides is uncanny. But the latest killer I particularly dislike. This is the filling of sacks with "pinkbat" material which contains fibreglass. These are tied around things such as bike seats etc, which Kea love to destroy. Once digesting the fibreglass, death will slowly ensue.

And yet after putting up with all the aforesaid, the Kea is a perky, friendly human loving bird. However humans certainly haven’t done anything to deserve such trust.

Keac - Nestor notabilis. Photo courtesy of Dawn Stewart, NZ

In the aviary they are messy birds to say the least, but are easy to please food-wise. Sunflower, peanuts, walnuts etc, are greedily consumed. Stalks of silverbeet are relished more than the green leaf, and roots are eaten as well. With this in mind carrots are a favourite, and apples, oranges, elderberries, corn, passionfruit,  etc go down a treat. Wholemeal bread and milk and logs or fir branches to rip to bits entertain for a while.

Their nest box is an oblong metal box to which a tunnel is welded, and it is placed in the shelter area, as otherwise it would overheat in the sun. The hen fills the floor up with odds and ends left from feed time, with pine twigs and needles prevalent.

They are great parents. Young seem to be fed continuously. When fledging, this of course is different from most parrots, as nests are usually on the ground in a rock cave or decaying tree trunk. About six weeks are spent in the nest and the exploration of their outside world is gradual. They stay close to their nest, as they are flightless for around two weeks. Slowly they learn to use their beak and jaunty gait, which is a sort of sideways skip. After this, the art of flight has to be learned; they can be very clumsy fliers to start off with.

Never pick up a young Kea with the tail facing you, their droppings can be squirted large and liquid. As Ron found out when he was proudly showing a young one to me. He let go very quickly, it was a very effective defensive mechanism.

At the present time though there is up to a 15-year ban on breeding in captivity. There are some field studies now being done on wild Kea populations. These studies show that Kea living close to artificial feed environment, such as landfills, ski fields, etc are breeding well and are under no immediate threat. True wild populations with no artificial food are now being studied by Josh Kemp, all pairs in his study area are in forested sites. All fledgling have been observed walking from their nest sites to alpine terrain, this may take up to two days. They then spend the nest three to four weeks learning to fly. Returning to the intersection, which is the edge of the forest and alpine terrain, to be fed by their parents.

Pranks which are endearing to some in the wild, are unbearable to those who live with them day in day out. Department of Conservation staff often come and remove Kea to other areas. This on the whole does not seem to help much, as other Kea almost always take over where others left off. Love Kea, yes and no!

A warning to all tourists in Kea country, don’t leave anything including your car unattended. Kea will either make a meal of it or treat it as their playground. After all Kea were here first, it is their playground, their killing fields, their breeding area. Indeed it is the only home in this world for Nestor notabilis.

© Article under Copyright with the Author, Mrs Dawn Stewart and cannot be reprinted without written permission.


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