Kea, New Zealand's endangered alpine parrot
Kea are a unique and endangered parrot (psittacine) species endemic to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Kea are highly adaptive and are considered by scientists to be one of the most intelligent bird species in the world.
Kea are also the only alpine parrot species and now number an estimated 1000-5000 individuals in the wild (Anderson, 1986). Numbers of Kea were substantially reduced with the introduction of a bounty which resulted in over 150,000 birds being culled as late as the 1970’s (Temple, 1978).
Kea are now listed as a nationally endangered species and the status of the wild kea population remains unclear.
Continued threats include predation of nests by introduced pest species (particularly possums and stoats) and human impacts (inclusive of lead poisoning). Potential threats include introduction of exotic avian diseases (such as avian malaria) and the unknown effects of global warming on New Zealands alpine habitat.
Kea (Nestor notabilis), along with the kaka (Nestor meridionalis) and kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), are thought to together form the sole members of a distinct parrot family, Nestoridae, within the avian order Psittaciformes [parrots and cockatoos]. It seems likely that the Nestoridae lineage diverged from that of other parrots some 80 million years ago, perhaps as a result of geographical isolation associated with the separation of 'Zealandia' (the precursor to New Zealand) from Gondwanaland (Christidis & Boles, 2008).
Its species name Nestor is from Greek mythology. Nestor was said to be a wise old counselor to the Greeks at Troy. Notabilis (latin), means, ‘that worthy of note’. Maori gave the name kea, describing the sound of its call. Kea were considered guardians of the mountains for the Waitaha Maori during their search for Pounamu (greenstone).
The habitat of the kea extends from South Island beech forests to alpine meadows and mountain scree slopes. This environment is extensive, extremely harsh and variable and the kea has evolved to cope with the associated survival pressures this environment presents. The total area where kea may nest covers approximately 4,000,000 ha of the South Island and is made up of predominantly Upland Beech forests.
Kea are opportunistic feeders, living predominantly on the roots, seeds, and flowers of plants as well as other bird's chicks, insects and lizards. With the event of human settlement they have adapted to eat almost anything.
Kea are considered by researchers to be one of, if not the most intelligent bird species in the world. This intelligence and curiosity has created difficulties with humans resulting in severe persecution of the species over the last 150 yrs.
For more information on what researchers have found out about kea, visit the University of Viennas Kea Lab.
Other New Zealand parrot species in the family Nestoridae include the endangered species of South and North Island Kakas (Nestor meridionalis) and the critically endangered Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus).
Both male and female kea are predominately olive green and black with blue primarys allowing for camoflague in the wild. Viewed from beneath, however, the underwings of the keas are a striking orange-red with black and yellow striped primary feathers. Rare sitings of yellow or albino kea have also been recorded.
Kea are the largest flighted terrestrial bird in New Zealand. Males are up to 20% larger than females and weigh over 1 kg. They are the second largest parrot in New Zealand – the kakapo is the largest at 2 kgs. The kea is a strong flier with a wing span of over 1 metre. The trademark hooked black beak is also longer in the male kea and can reach up to 5 ½ cms in length.
Lifespan of the Kea
The oldest known kea in captivity is 50 years old. Juvenile kea can be differentiated from adults through a distinctive yellow coloration around their eyes, mandible and nostrils (cere) which gradually fades to black/brown by 3-4 years of age.
Social Behaviour of Kea
Kea are highly gregarious, forming large social flocks in the wild with non-linear hierarchies. Once adult kea reach breeding age around 3-4 years of age they tend to leave the main flock and pair up for breeding and raising of chicks. Progeny have an extended juvenile period and are dependant on their parents for up to 6 months.
For an extensive list of research and literature dedicated to kea, visit our research and literature page.