Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kea - The world’s most intelligent bird

Kea - The world’s most intelligent bird and the bird that flies closest to the stars.

C. Peter Langlands

Keas are nothing less than a joy to encounter. For me they are always the highlight when passing through any of our major alpine passes, and are like visiting a long lost friend. Our kea is perhaps the worlds’ most intelligent bird and I have to wonder when I watch them, are they are watching me back just as intensely. Maybe waiting for me to walk just far enough from my car so that they can have a good chew on the rubber around my cars’ window ?

Recently while at the Homer Tunnel I walked up from the car park , to view an array of alpine plants, and looking down on the car park all the keas seemed to have miraculously disappeared. Then I looked at my car, with a sea kayak on it, in the corner of the car park, and then I noticed, with a mild level of shock, all the keas perched on the edge of my cockpit having a good chew. Fortunately I got back down to my car before they hit the bungy chords, which would have been a mess. Oddly they liked chewing on the hard rim, perhaps sharpening their beaks on the entrée before the main course !

Of course we may have simply mistaken the kea’s apparently mischievous nature for just a general sense of curiosity. Living in an alpine environment keas have to be naturally curious to survive, and in many areas have become opportunistic, feeding in a range of seasonally available foods. Indeed it is the keas ability to quickly learn new behaviours that has also got them into to trouble.

While farmers have rumoured, for over a hundred years, that certain rouge kea will hop onto the backs of sheep and peck away at the live animal, aiming for it’s kidney, and often causing blood poisoning, this fact has only been proved in recent decades. Night viewing gear has allowed cameramen to document these attacks, in which only a small number of birds participate. The “bikey” gang of the kea clan. Under special permit these rogue bird have been shot , before the behaviour spreads amongst the other birds.

Fortunately today keas are fully protected. This is only a recent development and up until the mid- 1980’s keas were regularly shot by high country merino sheep farmers. Earlier in the centaury keas had a bounty on them ! Farmers used to use calling birds in cages next to the farm homestead, to bring the birds down from the mountain slopes, where they could be shot with relative ease. In other cases beer bottles were smashed on the mountainside side and the inquisitive keas would come down to investigate the shiny glass, and were shot. Historically the green and orange feathers of the kea were also used for trout flies. A practice that has since ceased.

Today probably only around 5000 keas survive, so we can not be complacent about their survival. They are long-lived birds and breed at a slow rate. It is easy to get an inflated idea of how many keas there are, as they are very gregarious around spots where people stop , hoping to scavenge some food scraps, or when flying through valleys, call loudly over several kilometres, highlighting their presence.

For me seeing, or more often, hearing keas, is a defining part of the alpine experience in the South Island’s high country. In some areas, such as Fiordland, the keas will come down to sea level. Where earlier this year another mob ( from the Homer Tunnel birds) accosted my sea -kayak !. The kea’s close relative, the kaka, is critically endangered. Kakas are also very intelligent, but for survival in alpine environments, where the ability to learn quick to survive, the kea is king.

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