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Inspiring communities to protect kea, New Zealand's unique mountain parrot

Kea Facts

Learn more about what makes kea so special, their intelligence, and behaviour.

Kea are listed as Threatened -  Nationally Endangered; the second-highest threat level in New Zealand, and are on the IUCN Redlist - Endangered (Population trend decreasing) (Birdlife International, 2017).
Description
Diet

General kea description

What's in a name?

The kea’s 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 (‘kee-aa!’). Kea were considered guardians of the mountains for the Waitaha Maori during their search for Pounamu (greenstone). A flock of kea is known either as a ‘circus of kea’ or a ‘curiousity of kea’! ‘Kea’ is both singular and plural.

Endangered mountain parrot

Kea are the only mountain parrot species in the world and now number fewer than 5,000 individuals in the wild (Anderson, 1986). Numbers of Kea were substantially reduced with the introduction of a government bounty in the late 1870′s which resulted in a conservative estimate of over 150,000 birds being culled as late as the 1970’s (Temple, 1978).

Kea are now listed as Nationally Endangered (Robertson et al, 2012) and vulnerable, population trend decreasing by the IUCN Red List (Birdlife International, 2013).

Physical Description

Colour: Both male and female kea have predominately olive green feathers edged with black, with blue primaries allowing for camouflage 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 white kea have also been recorded. Leucism (a lack of melanin pigment) is inherited

Size: 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 wingspan 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 reached the grand old age of 50 years. Kea in the wild have been known to reach at least 30 years. 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.

kea diet

Kea are opportunistic omnivores and consume a wide variety of foods in the wild. Behavioural, faecal and gut studies have shown that kea eat over 200+ different varieties of natural foods including a wide range of animal and vegetable matter. Foods include grasshoppers, beetles (adults and larvae), ant larvae, weta and cicada nymphs, other invertebrates and the roots, bulbs, leaves, flowers, shoots, seeds, nectar and fruit of over 200 native plant species (Brejaart, 1988; Clarke, 1970).

Kea have also been recorded eating other bird and mammal species including: Huttons Shearwater (chicks and eggs), racing pigeon, sheep meat and bone marrow, stoat and possum carcasses (Brejaart, 1988).

They have also been known to consume fat from the carcasses of hunted introduced mammal species such as Tahr, deer and Chamois (Maloney, pers. comm.), and on occasion are also known to attack the fatty area around the kidneys of live sheep left high in the alpine areas (i.e. above 600m) during winter when resources are low (NHNZ, 2006).
Kea are one of the few species which have managed to take advantage of humans moving in to their habitat. They use their beak, cognitive abilities and tenacity to access resources and investigate any potential uses of new objects. Rubbish dumps/bins, seasonal deer culls, farms and ski fields continue to provide useful sources of food (and toxins in some cases) for kea in times of hardship.

Historical burn-off of high country forests by farmers, and continued legal annual burn-off of these areas between June and October (ECAN, 2005) have significantly decreased the availability of natural food sources throughout the natural range of kea. How this impacts the survival of the species is unknown. However, research into the major cause of death in kea has historically been attributed to lack of food resources (Jackson, 1969).

Research – Ria Brejaart, Laura Young

kea Threatened Listing Status

The kea’s 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 (‘kee-aa!’). Kea were considered guardians of the mountains for the Waitaha Maori during their search for Pounamu (greenstone). A flock of kea is known either as a ‘circus of kea’ or a ‘curiousity of kea’! ‘Kea’ is both singular and plural.
DOnate now

Kea Behaviour and Communication

Kea are a highly social species which exhibit complex social and cognitive behaviours throughout all life stages. Studies on kea social interactions, neophilic behaviours and communication indicate a level of cultural learning in this species.

Communication between kea is achieved through a combination of diverse vocalisations and body/feather postures and displays; some of which are not visible to us (eg. the feathers under the wings of kea are visible in the UV spectrum).
Intelligence
Habitat
Ecosystem

Kea Intelligence

Kea are renowned for their intelligence, curiousity and antics. As a result, they have been extensively studied, both in the wild and in captivity by researchers here and overseas. Vienna University in collaboration with the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, have set up their Kea Lab research facility with 20 resident kea which is dedicated to finding out more about kea intelligence. A list of their publications can be found on our Resources – Bibliography page or direct from the Vienna University website.

But how intelligent are kea?

Kea Habitat and Territories

Kea are now restricted to the South Island of New Zealand and are scarce across their 3.5 million hectare range. They inhabit lowland areas of podocarp forest on the West Coast of the South Island, through to alpine beech forests, alpine meadows and mountain scree slopes along the length of the Southern Alps from Waitutu in the southern reaches of Fiordland to Kahurangi in the far north west. A significant decline in kea distribution from the 1980’s has been identified in the North West part of the South Island (Robertson et al., 2007). A separate population inhabits the Kaikoura Mountains on the east coast of the South Island.

Much of their range lies within conservation estate. Consequently, habitat fragmentation and loss are not a major threat as with many of our other native species. Strongholds persist in areas of extensive predator management, such as around the Arthur’s Pass area and South Westland, but a rapid decline in the unmanaged Nelson Lakes National Park since 1998 indicates that they are under serious threat in areas where predators are not managed.

Territories are extensive and can cover up to 4kms² (Jackson, 1969; Elliott & Kemp, 1999). Breeding pairs may have one or more nest cavities positioned on a spur and their territory will extend from the forest floor up to the alpine area above tree line (Kemp pers. comm., 2009). There has never been evidence of more than one breeding pair occupying a spur (ibid).

Kea and the Ecosystem

Kea play a vitally important part in maintaining the health of our alpine ecosystems through distribution of seed in high country areas (Young et al, 2012) and potentially pollination of native vegetation (Young pers comm, 2017).

They are also known to eat larvae that live inside mountain daises which would otherwise predate on the flowers (ibid) and have also been observed scavenging carcasses of Himalayan thar (Schwing, 2010). As such they may also play a vital ‘regulator’ and ‘cleaner’ role in the ecosystem similar to wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

They are also considered iconic to the South Island mountain landscapes and a taonga species and as such their presence is part and parcel of the high country conservation estate.

Losing them would not only be a national tragedy but may also have far reaching implications, as yet unknown, to the health of our South Island ecosystems. As a keystone endemic species, ensuring their continued survival, will only benefit the long-term health of the ecosystem they evolved within and are a vital part of.

Kea lifecycle

Incubation – Fledging (0-4 months)
Key attributes: Reproductive/development period.

Keas nest on the ground in naturally formed cavities, usually within upland beech and lowland podocarp forest. Breeding occurs in most years, but only about half of all adult females breed in any given year. Breeding occurs as early as July through until January. The female lays a clutch of 3-5 eggs which she incubates for approximately 1 month. The female cares for the eggs and nestlings in the cavity, whilst the male forages for the whole family.

Because of the long period associated with rearing chicks (approximately four months from start of incubation to chicks fledging) it is uncommon for kea to rear more than one brood in a season. However, if the eggs fail to hatch or are damaged, or if the chicks die or are removed, pairs will generally re-nest almost immediately. This has been observed in both the wild and captive situations (Pullar, 1996; Barrett, pers. comm. DoC, 2009).

Kea are most vulnerable during this lifestage due to predation of chicks and females on nests by introduced predators; in particular stoats.
Juvenile Period (1st year)
Key attributes: Dispersal from natal area, flocking; social/learning period.

Kea are a highly gregarious species which in the wild, form large flocks with non-linear hierarchies. Studies by Jackson (1960) in Arthur’s Pass observed large groups of around 20 first year birds during the summer period. These large flocks were then seen to disperse into groups of 2 -6 in autumn. Movement of all groups was seasonally and food related with those birds that moved to higher altitudes (1,219m – 2,133m) in the warmer months observed foraging for food and retreating back to the shelter of beech forests (up to 1219m) during autumn and winter.

Studies by Clarke (1970), of kea population, movements and foods in Nelson Lakes National Park, also showed very definite changes in group composition and location related to different times of the year. During August – September it was observed that kea formed flocks of 6 -8 birds which dispersed in October – December into smaller groups of 2 – 3. In January and February large flocks of up to 13 individuals again formed.

Kea in their first year are vulnerable to many threats due to their extreme neophilia (love of all things novel).
Sub- adult (2nd – 3rd year)
Key attributes: Flocking; social/learning period.

Kea in their 2nd and 3rd years continue flocking in a mixed group learning about their environment and social structure.
Adult (3rd-4th years +)
Key attributes: Forming pairs and developing territories.

Once adults reach breeding age (3-4 years) they tend to leave the main flock and pair up for breeding (Jackson, 1963; Jackson, 1960). Pairs are generally considered monogamous, although there have been accounts of males pairing with more than one female (Jackson, 1963). Mating behaviour begins in midwinter around June. Egg laying begins in July and peaks in October, but can extend right through into January (Jackson, 1962; Jackson, 1960).

Kea are long lived and slowly reproducing, making their populations particularly sensitive to changes in adult survival rates, and also to changes in reproductive and juvenile survival rates.

Kea genetics

Kea are currently managed as one genetic unit across the length and width of the South Island. However new research by the University of Otago has identified 3 distinct genetic clusters using microsatellite data, and six haplotypes using mitochondrial DNA, but no distinct northern and southern genetic lineages.

Kea evolution and taxonomy​

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Psittaciformes
Family: Strigopidea
Genus: Nestor
Species: Nestor notabilis
Kea (Nestor notabilis), along with the kaka (Nestor meridionalis) and the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), together form the living members of a distinct parrot family, Strigopidae, within the avian order Psittaciformes (parrots and cockatoos). It seems likely that the Strigopidae lineage diverged from those of other parrots some 85 – 55 million years ago, perhaps as a result of geographical isolation following separation of the microcontinent ‘Zealandia’ (the precursor to present-day New Zealand) from Gondwana.

Recent molecular genetic evidence places the divergence of the Strigops and Nestor lineages at some 30 million years ago, coinciding with the possible submergence of Zealandia when much of the land mass may have been fragmented into small islands. Finally, divergence of the Nestor genus into the kea and kaka forms that we know today probably occurred some 1 – 4 million years ago possibly in response to the repeated glacial periods of the ‘ice ages’ and the tectonic mountain uplifting which created the Southern Alps.

Thus it appears that the evolution of the Strigopidae family is a valuable legacy of the dramatic geological changes that Zealandia / New Zealand has experienced since a distant time when a kaka-like bird may have foraged in trees above the heads of dinosaurs. These days kaka typically inhabit lowland forests and feed predominantly on seeds and fruits while kea are a more generalist species adapted to living on a diverse range of foods in a more harsh mountain environment.

The kakapo, kaka and kea have a common ancestor.

Kea Breeding and Nesting​

Keas nest on the ground in naturally formed cavities, usually within upland beech and lowland podocarp forest. Breeding occurs in most years, but only about half of all adult females breed in any given year. Breeding occurs as early as July through until January.

The female cares for the eggs and nestlings in the cavity, whilst the male forages for the whole family. A kea nest takes four months to raise from a clutch of eggs to free-flying fledglings. Kea are long lived and slowly reproducing, making their populations particularly sensitive to changes in adult survival rates, and also to changes in reproductive and juvenile survival rates.
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