The kea: mountain mastermind

04:19, Jul 06 2012

For any of you who've spent time in South Island skifields, or stopped to watch them in Arthur's Pass, the West Coast or Mt Cook, there's no mistaking the raucous cry of our much-loved (and sometimes maligned) alpine parrot, the kea.

Personally, I have a real affection for these intelligent and charismatic birds, though it wasn't always that way. When we were kids, our family lived in Mt Cook Village, in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, and the local kea were a constant presence. As fellow residents of the national park, we humans constantly had to find ways to outsmart the kea, though we didn't always win.

The first thing I remember was that on rubbish day, our waste would be parcelled up in blue rubbish bags and put in the street. The bright and shiny nature of the bags and the tempting trashy treats that lay within were too much for the kea, who took no time in shredding the plastic and strewing everybody's rubbish all over the roads... on a weekly basis. It seems we were slow learners, because as long as I lived there, the rubbish routine remained the same.

My other memorable run-in with kea was when they set upon my brand new bike, tearing the seat of my shiny blue Healing to shreds. As disappointing and frustrating as this was to my seven-year-old self, it was a valuable lesson to put my bike away at night.

There were many funny antics during our time in Mt Cook, but the one that I remember vividly was the morning routine of the kea, running up the roofs of the houses (at 5.30am!) and "skiing" down, then running back up again... they could do this for some time, and I haven't experienced such a unique wakeup call since!


Years after we left Mt Cook I discovered rock climbing and one fantastic weekend, while bivvied out at Twin Streams in the Ben Ohau range, we were awoken by a group of kea (obviously young hoons) who had found our box of climbing bolts and were spreading them across the valley. 

It's those kinds of antics that have upset some people who perhaps don't understand what's so special about kea and why scientists worldwide consider them one of the most intelligent birds on the planet.  First, the intelligence. It is well documented that kea are excellent problem solvers, and can work in groups to complete puzzles to gain food

A more complicated example can be seen here, where a captive kea takes just over a minute to solve a seven-stage problem to receive the food reward.

A recent wild example has been the kea in Fiordland and Wanaka that have started using sticks to set off stoat traps so that they can gain access to the egg bait inside. The tragic thing about this trick is that they are unknowingly contributing to their own demise, since predators are reducing their numbers. There are now just a few thousand kea remaining (compare that to 70,000 kiwi). On the West Coast in areas with no predator control up to 60 per cent of nests (eggs, chicks - even parents) are lost.

As someone who had the privilege of growing up alongside these cheeky mountain parrots, I really hope that we can ensure a safe future for kea. Have you ever seen one? Got any hard-case kea stories you'd like to share? I'd love to hear them.

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