The kea: mountain mastermind

Last updated 16:19 06/07/2012

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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Heef   #1   04:29 pm Jul 06 2012

Fantastic bird, and the Kea Conservation Trust's website is well worth a look ( I've taken part in the KCT's annual Kea Summer Survey for the past couple of years and have been lucky enough to hold a couple (under close supervision from fabulous DOC experts) and to be camped out at the top of a range in the South Island Kea Country is an incredible and unique experience.

WHAT?   #2   04:45 pm Jul 06 2012

I remember this poor fellows AUDI being vandalised by a group of Kea up at Mt Hutt a few years back, made me laugh.

Norm   #3   05:31 pm Jul 06 2012

I live near Mt Cook and agree that is a truly wonderful bird, full of intelligence and character. I can't say I feel the same way about DOC..

jen   #4   06:48 pm Jul 06 2012

Just outside the Homer Tunnel, some overseas visitors were laughing at a couple of kea trying to attack the rubber etc on my car. They didn't laugh so much when the kea started on their car! Beautiful to watch flying too

Alan_Wilkinson   #5   07:05 pm Jul 06 2012

Ski hut - keas sliding down roof just as Nicola says. Got a broom and banged on the roof to stop them. Next move - one kea slides down the roof while another looks on the window!

Kea   #6   08:49 pm Jul 06 2012

For Kea lovers a book called Beak of the Moon by Philip Temple is a good read. About $10-$20 on trademe at the moment.

Mahara   #7   03:43 pm Jul 07 2012

There are some Kea in the bird enclosure at Willowbank Wildlife reserve in Christchurch. The last time I was there one came over while I was walking through and climbed onto my arm for a pat (and to taste my hair!). The adults are heavy too!

David from Chch   #8   09:34 pm Jul 07 2012

I remember once watching a number of keas in the Franz Josef Glacier parking lot. A couple of them were attempting to remove the antenna from a camper van.

But the funniest was one kea that would hop up to a tire that lacked a cap on the pressure valve. It pressed its beak into the valve, releasing air! It jumped back, seemingly in surprise, but then seemed to enjoy it so much, that it hopped back and did it again. I watched it repeat this performance for some minutes, pitying the poor people who were going to return to find a flat tire, never knowing why it was flat.

Rochelle   #9   08:15 pm Jul 08 2012

On our honeymoon in March last year we did a trip to the Manapouri Dam and the bus driver took us to the pass to sightsee Doubtful Sound. We could very clearly hear the Kea laughing around us but sadly they didn't stick around. Went to Nga Manu sanctuary in Waikanae earlier this year and went into the walk-in aviary where there were 3 of them. I had great fun calling to them and them responding, but they weren't overly curious about us. As a Kaka fan it was a thrill to be in the same place as these incredibly intelligent parrots.

Susan   #10   01:36 am Jul 11 2012

A pair of them sidled up to me in the mountains: I was lying on my front. One pulled the elastoplast off my heel and, having removed that fabric "crust" eyed the tasty "pie" underneath with intent. I gently moved my wound out of reach. Buddy-in-crime had its head buried in the top of my pack, having a rummage.

Later on in the Arthurs Pass tearooms I quipped "the keas have found someone's motorbike seat" and some guy yelps "sh*t!" and runs out the door. My camping-companion had her lilo punctured in several places by their reaching under the tent and fly during the night.

The only vandals I love.

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