Kea (pronounced /ki:a:/) are a species of large parrot in the genus Nestor and the family Nestoridae. They are found exclusively in the forested and alpine regions of New Zealand's South Island. Their average body height is 48 cm (19 in) long. It is the only parrot species to thrive in alpine environments. They are omnivorous and their meat source mainly comes from carrion. They also eat roots, leaves, berries, nectar, and insects. They were hunted to endangerment for bounty in the 20th century due to suspicions that the kea attacks local livestock (especially sheep). They became a protected species in 1986 from the Wildlife Act. The kea possesses a level of intelligence and curiosity.
The kea is a large parrot about 48 cm (19 in) long and weighs between 800 grams (1.8 lb) and 1 kilogram (2.2 lb). It has mostly olive-green plumage with a grey beak having a long, narrow, curved upper beak. The adult has dark-brown irises, and the cere, eyerings, and legs are grey. It has orange feathers on the undersides of its wings. The feathers on the sides of its face are dark olive-brown, feathers on its back and rump are orange-red, and some of the outer wing are dull-blue. It has a short, broad, bluish-green tail with a black tip. Feather shafts project at the tip of the tail and the undersides of the inner tail feathers have yellow-orange transverse stripes. The male is about 5% longer than the female, and the male's upper beak is 12–14% longer than the female's. Juveniles generally resemble adults, but have yellow eyerings and cere, an orange-yellow lower beak, and grey-yellow legs.
The kea's epithet "notabilis" (meaning noteworthy in Latin) was coined by English ornithologist John Gould in 1856. The common name kea comes from Māori and is thought to be an onomatopoeic representation of their in-flight call ("keee aaa"). The word kea is both plural and singular. A gathering or group of kea is called a circus.
Interactions with humans
Keas are curious, and often investigate manmade objects (such as backpacks, clothing, parts of cars etc). They are regarded as a pest to local residents as they often damage property or fly away with small items. Kea was once kept as pets before they became protected, however, they were a rare choice for people to choose as they were hard to capture and became even more aggressive in captivity. The kea's natural instinct to trust humans has led to incidents at popular tourist attractions where they have been killed on purpose.
The kea is omnivorous. They feast on over 40 different species of plant, insects, other birds, and mammals. They also scavenge for carrion. They commonly eat shearwater chicks after hearing them in their nests. The kea may also eat human food, either by eating scraps left behind by humans or by being fed by them.
Threats and conservation
Together with local councils and runholders, the New Zealand government paid a bounty for kea bills because the bird preyed upon livestock, mainly sheep. It was intended that hunters would kill kea only on the farms and council areas that paid the bounty, but some hunted them in national parks and in Westland, where they were officially protected. More than 150,000 were killed in the hundred years before 1970 when the bounty was lifted. In the 1970s, the kea received partial protection after a census counted only 5,000 birds. The government agreed to investigate any reports of problem birds and have them removed from the land. In 1986 it was given full protection under the Wildlife Act 1953.
A study of kea numbers in Nelson Lakes National Park showed a substantial decline in the population between 1999 and 2009, caused primarily by predation of kea eggs and chicks. Video cameras set up to monitor kea nests in South Westland showed that possums killed kea fledglings.
Lead poisoning, mostly from the roofs of buildings/building materials, is also a significant cause of premature deaths among kea. Research on lead toxicity in kea living at Aoraki/Mount Cook found that of 38 live kea tested all were found to have detectable blood lead levels, 26 considered dangerously high. Additional analysis of 15 dead kea sent to Massey University for diagnostic pathology between 1991 and 1997 found 9 bodies to have lead blood levels consistent with causing death. Research conducted by Victoria University in 2008 confirmed that the natural curiosity of kea which has enabled the species to adapt to its extreme environment, may increase its propensity to poisoning through ingestion of lead – i.e. the more investigative behaviours identified in a bird the higher its blood lead levels were likely to be.
The 1080 pesticide is used to control invasive pest mammals such as stoats and possums and has also been implicated in kea deaths. For example, seven kea were found dead following an aerial possum control operation using 1080, at Fox Glacier in July 2008 and a further seven had been found dead in August 2011, following a 1080 aerial possum control operation in Ōkārito Forest. Traps are also considered a risk to kea. In September 2011, hidden cameras caught kea breaking into baited stoat traps in the Matukituki Valley. More than 75% of the traps had been sprung.
Kea are also still being deliberately killed on purpose despite being a protected species. Many incidents happen where humans kill keaa on purpose, for example, in the late 1990s, a Fox Glacier resident killed 33 kea in the glacier car park and in 2008, two kea were shot in Arthur's Pass and stapled to a sign. Kea deaths due to traffic have prompted the NZ Transport Agency to install signs to help raise awareness, and to encourage people to slow down if necessary.
A citizen science project called the "Kea Database" was launched in 2017 that allows for the recording of kea observations to an online database. If the recorded kea are banded, it is possible to match up observations with individual named birds, enabling the monitoring of the habits and behaviour of individual kea.