The kea is the world’s only mountain-dwelling parrot and also one of the most intelligent species of bird known for their playfulness and novelty-seeking nature.
The birds, which are considered a pest by many New Zealanders, are only found in the mountains of the South Island in a vast habitat of some 3.5 million hectares.
Conservationists have begun raising the alarm after years of “crashing” population numbers, with the wild kea population estimated to be as low as 1,000-5,000.
Recent studies from the Kea Conservation Trust have found two-thirds of all chicks never reach fledgling stage, as their nests are ground-dwelling and they are eaten by stoats, rats and possums (which the NZ government has pledged to exterminate by 2050).
“Kea are one of the most maligned of New Zealand birds, as well as one of our most loved,” said Tamsin Orr-Walker, chair of the Kea Conservation Trust.
“One of the most interesting things about kea is they are one of the few wild species that seek out humans. That is really rare, and it is that inquisitive nature that is getting them into trouble because a lot of the ways humans interact with them is endangering their survival.”
Orr-Walker said the threat to Kea was three-pronged – from introduced species, lead-poisoning from old-fashioned alpine dwellings such as huts and shearing sheds, and from their interactions with humans.
Lead poisoning was particularly difficult to tackle, said Orr-Walker, as there were thousands of old buildings dotted around remote parts the South Island that could poison inquisitive kea. The effects of lead poisoning on the birds were disastrous, and include brain damage and death.
“We can educate people about how to behave responsibly with kea, and we can enclose protected environments, but the lead poisoning is hard,” said Josh Kemp, a kea expert at New Zealand’s department of conservation.
“And we can’t afford any Kea losses at this stage, they are too vulnerable.”
An estimated 150,000 kea were killed from the 1860s onwards thanks to a government bounty introduced after conflict with sheep farmers. DOC and the Kea Conservation Trust continue to record intentional kea deaths each year (either shot, bludgeoned, or poisoned by humans) though targeted kea deaths are thought to be largely under-reported, because they are an endangered and protected species.“Education efforts have gone a long way towards New Zealanders learning to love and respect the kea, but if the kea cause financial loss or begin to hit people’s bottom line, that is when we are still hearing stories of Kea being killed.” said Kemp.
Despite their protected status, keas have divided Kiwis between those who enjoy the cheeky parrot’s animated nature, and those who curse its destructive habits such as damaging cars, tents and buildings in alpine environments, attacking stock and habitually stealing food.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 21 Sep 2016.