Ongoing population decline prompts BirdLife to officially declare New Zealand’s Kea “Endangered”
The forested mountains of New Zealand’s South Island are home to that famous mischievous alpine parrot, the Kea. But this inquisitiveness, along with predation by invasive mammals and feeding junk food by tourists, is contributing to the species’s ongoing decline: Kea have just been up-listed to Endangered
Drive through Arthur’s Pass and you’ll likely see a Kea, Nestor notabilis. Or maybe a Kea will see you first. As this personable parrot confidently ambles towards you and tries to jump into your car, you’d be forgiven for thinking these birds aren’t threatened at all. But their fondness for people makes them appear far more common than they really are. Contact with people — especially because we like feeding them — are major contributing factors to their decline, but introduced predators, lead poisoning, conflicts with farmers and collisions with automobile traffic also pose significant threats. Concerned about their continuing population decline, BirdLife recently up-listed Kea from Vulnerable to Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Despite this bad news, up-listing Kea to Endangered will help secure additional resources to further aid ongoing conservation efforts.
The success of most conservation efforts revolve around people, especially tourists. Because tourists love to feed Kea, these parrots will now eat almost anything — including poison.
“If we didn’t have ‘junk food Kea’ — populations fed by people — we would be able to protect all Kea with aerial poisoning operations aimed at rats, stoats and possums,” said conservation biologist, Kevin Hackwell, who is Chief Conservation Advisor for Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand (BirdLife International’s New Zealand partner).
Kea are already protected, so why are their numbers still declining?
The decision to up-list the Kea comes on the heels of one of this parrot’s most successful publicity campaigns. Only a few weeks ago, the Kea was officially recognised as New Zealand’s “Bird of the Year” for 2017 after a fierce campaign where more than 50,000 votes were cast (ref). This competition is intended to raise the profile of New Zealand’s endangered birds in the minds of the public and media.
The Kea’s victory is a startling contrast from years past: until 1971, the New Zealand government paid a bounty for Kea bills, which resulted in more than 150,000 of these iconic parrots being killed, mostly by sheep ranchers. Kea, which are omnivorous parrots with a taste for carrion, were suspected of attacking or killing sheep.
The Kea’s current state of decline is a tragic legacy from that earlier eradication program, which very nearly wiped them off the face of the Earth. The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) estimates there are only 3,000–7,000 individuals alive today (ref), whereas other estimates are lower, placing its population somewhere between 1,000–5,000 individuals (Anderson, 1986). Of these, roughly one-third are juveniles. The rugged mountain terrain of New Zealand’s Southern Alps where these parrots persist, combined the Kea’s low population density, makes it difficult to accurately assess their numbers, but regardless, it is clear that Kea numbers are still decreasing.
After people stopped legally killing Kea, other threats became more obvious. Because Kea evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, they have not developed defences to them, and nowhere is this more conspicuous than when it comes to nesting. Unlike most parrots, which nest in cavities high up in trees, Kea nest in burrows, tucked under rocks or amongst tree roots, which makes the incubating female, her eggs and chicks especially vulnerable to predation by introduced stoats. When stoat populations periodically explode, they decimate Kea nests, reducing survival to near zero. Other predators, particularly possums, introduced rats and free-roaming cats, add yet more casualties.
Kea: the parrot that people “love to hate”
The Kea is a large handsome olive-green parrot with a long fan-shaped tail, blue-grey flight feathers on its upper wings and orange-red patches underneath. It has an exceptionally long, downwardly curved upper bill that it uses as a powerful all-purpose tool. Juvenile Kea can be distinguished from adults by the yellow colouring around their dark eyes and at the base of their beaks. Although attractive, Kea are one of the few parrot species that have not been exploited by the pet trade — yet people are still responsible for their declining numbers.
Kea are perhaps unique amongst endangered wildlife because they actively seek human contact. Like human scientists, Kea use their intellect and their powerful beaks to learn about the world by systematically dismantling parts of it. But their curiosity and intelligence, combined with their powerfully destructive beaks and their predilection for destroying human property — bicycles, cars, and even houses — create direct conflicts with their human neighbours. Conflicts that curious Kea invariably lose.
Although killing a Kea is a crime that can get the offender a $15,000-$100,000 fine and up to two years’ imprisonment under the Wildlife Protection Act, few people seem to have gotten the message (ref). For example, in September, a man from Nelson was convicted of shooting and killing a Kea he claimed was trashing his property, but he was only sentenced to community service. According to the DOC and the Kea Conservation Trust, human-Kea conflicts result in an unknown number of dead Kea annually due to shootings, beatings or poisoning (ref).
Some Kea deaths result from accidents. Juvenile Kea especially enjoy loitering at popular ski areas, such as Arthur’s Pass, where they are infamous for removing rubber bits from automobiles and bicycles, raiding rubbish bins, and feasting on discarded and junk foods intentionally provided by tourists — earning these roving gangs the nickname “junk food Kea”.
Their attraction to humans makes them vulnerable to being killed by speeding automobiles and electrocution by power lines at ski resorts. But these “larrikins” (New Zealand slang for a cheeky teenager) also manage to find trouble when none seems readily available. For example, a gang of juvenile Kea were recently captured on film as they re-arranged road cones near the Homer Tunnel in Fiordland National Park to force cars to slow down so the birds could beg for food (ref). In another instance, a juvenile Kea was spotted rolling a snowball across a snow-covered road at Arthur’s Pass (ref) — an amusing but potentially deadly situation.
It is possible to live harmoniously alongside Kea
Addressing human-Kea conflicts can be an ongoing challenge, even for the most proactive communities. Education and conflict resolution efforts within affected communities are essential to support conservation efforts, and they require local insight as well as sensitivity (more here). But this is not an unattainable goal: people and Kea can co-exist peacefully in communities that have been carefully designed for this purpose.
Community changes are already taking place to reduce the serious threat of lead poisoning to Kea. A survey of Kea blood lead levels indicated that lead exposure is pervasive and is a major contributing factor to their ongoing decline (ref). In recognition of this threat, community abatement efforts are underway to remove lead-head nails and lead flashing on corrugated roofing on schools, huts and other structures in key areas, and to reduce the use of lead shot by hunters. Follow-up surveys of Kea blood lead levels are planned to see how effective this programme has been.
Another experiment has recently been started with the young gang of road cone Keas: a “jungle gym” that has been installed some distance off the roadway to distract them.
Despite the challenges, Kea CAN be recovered
There are several programmes in place to help Kea recover from their perilous state, starting with predator control. To reduce predator numbers, the DOC implemented a pest-control programme in vital Kea nesting areas. This was motivated by a study that found only 2% of DOC-monitored Kea nests were successful between from 2009 through 2014 in areas without pest control. In 2015, aerial applications of the biodegradable metabolic poison, 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate), were started and the DOC saw Kea nest success increase to 27% (DOC 2016). 1080 is a colourless salt that tastes like table salt.
Ironically, the curious Kea’s nosiness sometimes is their undoing: the 1080 programme also caused accidental poisonings of some Kea.
“In total, DoC monitored Kea on 199 occasions spread over 14 aerial 1080 operations between 2008 and 2014, and 24 deaths were recorded”, said zoologist Josh Kemp, a DOC science adviser.
These accidental poisonings were a very visible and disturbing, but localised, problem. Kea populations that do not interact regularly with people — nor with their junk food offerings — showed significant benefit from aerial poisoning operations to control introduced predators, whereas “junk food Kea”, such as those at Arthur’s Pass, showed no benefit.
“The single biggest challenge at the moment is the presence of a few populations of what some researchers call ‘junk food Kea’. Despite advice to the contrary, many tourists, and some locals, feed the Kea, which encourages them to try novel food”, said Hackwell.
“These Kea are therefore particularly susceptible to eating the poison baits that are used to control introduced rats, stoats, possums and feral cats”, said Hackwell, adding: “For this reason one of our greatest conservation challenges is to stop tourists and others from feeding Kea.”
Despite the challenges, conserving Kea is a goal well-worth pursuing. These resourceful alpine parrots are special because of their exceptional intelligence and because they are found nowhere else in the world. Thus, conserving Kea for future generations to enjoy is critical because protecting these maddeningly clever parrots and their unique mountaintop habitat will help sustain countless other less visible species who share their lofty home.
Forest and Bird’s Bird of the Year 2017 competition.
New Zealand Department of Conservation online report: Kea.
Jennifer Marie McLelland, Clio Reid, Kate McInnes, Wendi D. Roe, and Brett D. Gartrell (2010). Evidence of lead exposure in a free-ranging population of kea (Nestor notabilis), Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 46(2):532–540 | doi:10.7589/0090–3558–46.2.532
Breanna Barraclough and Ben Irwin (2017). “Community service for Nelson man who shot, killed Kea”. Newshub, 20 September 20017 (Retrieved 27 November 2017)
“Kea — Human Conflict”. Kea Conservation Trust. (Retrieved 28 November 2017)
“Cheeky kea get their own gym in bid to stop them messing with road cones”. New Zealand Herald, 11 January 2018. (Retrieved 11 January 2018)
Jack Fletcher. “Smart cookie Kea makes a snowball in Arthur’s Pass, Canterbury”. Stuff, 8 September 2017. (Retrieved 29 November 2017)
Anderson, R (1986). Keas for keeps, Forest and Bird, 17: 2–5.
About the author
“GrrlScientist” is the pseudonym of an evolutionary ecologist/ornithologist and parrot researcher who writes long-form journalism about science for Forbes and for the non-profit Think Tank, the Evolution Institute, and who writes 2 minute podcasts for BirdNote Radio. Formerly: The Guardian (UK). Science blog writer, social media lurker, and Twitter fiend @GrrlScientist with almost 25,000 followers. Keeps songbirds. Kept by parrots.
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Updated (and with different images) from the piece that was first published by BirdLife on 26 January 2017.