Creature Feature: Kea

Many wild animals are afraid of humans, and with good reason. We are tall, loud, unpredictable, and like to hunt many species—some for food, many more because they bother us. Most wild animals that live near humans follow this rule: keep a safe distance and run away if people get too close.

Then there is the kea (Nestor notabilis), a playful bird known for its intelligence, wild curiosity, and general disregard for the “stay away from humans” rule. This New Zealand native was named by the Māori people for its distinct call [1]: a bright, high-pitched keee-aaa! It is a beautiful, aerodynamic-looking parrot (order: Psittaciformes) with a hooked beak, beady eyes, and wing feathers that range from deep green to fiery orange to sapphire blue. Where many animals fear the unknown, this bird is the exact opposite; keas are what scientists call neophilic (nee-oh-fil-ick), meaning “new-loving.”

Kea showing off its brilliant wing coloration. Photo by Bernard Spragg [source]

Never has this term better defined a bird. The kea is constantly on the lookout for the next new and exciting toy. They love the strange and the different, and will taste just about any edible-looking object they find. Sometimes, this curiosity leads keas to new sources of food and objects to play with. At other times, it can unfortunately put keas in conflict with human interests.

Featured in bestselling author Jennifer Ackerman’s new book, The Bird Way, keas have been called the “clowns of the mountains” [2], and for good reason. They are known to poke around tourists’ bags, grabbing sunglasses, keys, money, and anything else that isn’t nailed down. Scratch that; keas have even unscrewed the bolts on car radio antennas and, as Ackerman quotes from researcher Raoul Schwing, “uninstalled” satellite dishes on homes, providing their tech support free of charge. Here’s a video of keas trying to dismantle a police car and doing a pretty good job of it. Suffice it to say, keas are clever birds with a bit of a mischievous streak.

Reminiscent of a destructively mischievous child, this kea goes after a bike seat. Photo by Bernard Spragg [source]

These clowns also love to play games. Keas will roll snowballs back and forth to one another, play-fight, and fly high up into the air, tossing objects for their friends to swoop in and catch. The New Zealand Transport Agency even filmed keas deliberately dragging traffic cones into the road, possibly to get cars to stop for them . . . no doubt so the keas could turn their antics on the unsuspecting passengers.

Play is a vital part of kea socialization, just as it is for humans. Keas even have a “play call” of sorts, which seems to encourage others to join in. Some researchers think this call may be a close equivalent to human laughter [3]. Watching videos of keas at play is wonderfully reminiscent of children playing, and seeing keas solve object puzzles [4] makes one wonder what else they would be capable of if they had opposable thumbs. Like their dancing relatives the sulfur-crested cockatoos, social learning and complex cognitive abilities underlie keas’ innovative and amusing behaviors [5].

How did keas get so relentlessly curious? It helps that these birds evolved on an island with natural predators few and far between. For many generations, keas were free to explore their homeland with little fear of a predator attacking; this allowed them to let their curiosity run wild and develop skills and social relationships through play [6]. Additionally, keas evolved to live in a tough mountainous environment. They are not picky about their food, and in the wild, keas must use their smarts and creativity to figure out how to get into hard-to-reach places, track down insects, and even pick out the edible parts of poisonous plants. When the world around you is rough, you have to learn to use what’s available. We crafty toolmaking humans may have faced similar evolutionary challenges that ultimately contributed to our sizable brains.

A pair of keas living up to their nickname of “mountain parrots.” Photo by Bernard Spragg [source]

Despite, or perhaps because of our similarities, humans and keas have come into conflict. While birds pulling food out of garbage bins isn’t a big deal, attacking livestock is. Keas are known to take bites out of sheep, which can become infected and sometimes kill the sheep. Nineteenth century farmers in New Zealand did not like this one bit. Between the livestock attacks and the property damage caused by kea curiosity, many residents began to view the birds as pests. In the late 1800s, a bounty of ~$85 per beak (in today’s money) was placed on the kea [1]. A hundred years later, over 150,000 keas had been killed, and only an estimated 5,000 remained in the wild. Today, the kea is categorized as an endangered species by the IUCN. Conservation efforts have increased their population somewhat, but there is still a long way to go.

When humans and wildlife come into conflict, resolution is never easy. Keas may bother people with their mischief, but they are a part of the land and the ecosystem, and they have a right to live and roam free. To help humans coexist with the kea, the first step is understanding kea behavior. Here’s where behavioral ecologists come in!

Map showing the geographic distribution of keas (dark green areas) and other New Zealand parrot species. [source]

Researchers have studied the way that keas socialize and learn from one another. Just like humans, keas observe and often copy what others are doing, eager to join in the fun. When it comes to attacking sheep, certain innovative young males seem to consistently lead the charge and instigate the attacks [7]. When such a male is removed from a group, the attacks stop. This understanding of kea social dynamics makes it possible to engage in more humane forms of animal control: curbing undesired behaviors by identifying and removing individuals that steer that behavior.

Now, people are using their knowledge of the kea’s playful and inquisitive behavior as a way to keep the birds safe. Forestry crews provide toys to distract keas from dangerous equipment. Researcher Amy Brunton-Martin has devised a way to deter keas from rodent poison by mixing it with special colored dyes, relying on the birds’ excellent memory and social learning to spread word of the danger [8]. In an effort to reduce kea-automobile collisions, the New Zealand Transport Agency has set up kea “jungle gyms” by roadsides, filled with entertaining objects and puzzles to keep the parrots out of the street. There is even an initiative called the Great New Zealand Kea Jungle Gym Project, which encourages citizens to devise new, exciting toys for the novelty-seeking parrots. Hopefully, we can keep keas entertained so they stay away from our cars and clothes and wallets, for both birds’ and humans’ sakes.

Why did the kea cross the road? To get to the bird jungle gym on the other side! Photo by Bernd Hildebrandt [source]

There’s something to be said for an animal that wholeheartedly embraces the novel. Neophilic animals like the kea remind us of the impact humans have on all wildlife. While there may be a bit of cognitive dissonance in seeing a majestic mountain parrot make off with an airpod or a french fry, it’s a worthwhile lesson in how broadly the human world has expanded and intruded upon the lives of other animals. Now, it is all the more important that we make space for our wild neighbors, redesigning our tools and infrastructure with their wellbeing in mind. While many challenges to human-wildlife harmony remain, the little victories of coexistence should give us hope. It’s an oddly comforting thought that whatever else happens, the keas will be there, ready to take any new object we put in front of them and tear it to shreds, laughing with delight as they soar above and away.


Jacob Johnson studies vocal adaptation in birds and is currently a PhD student in Animal Behavior at UC Davis. He is also a jazz saxophonist, and is writing an album of music about evolutionary biology.



References

  1. Diamond, J., & Bond, A. B. (1999). Kea, Bird of Paradox: The Evolution and Behavior of a New Zealand Parrot (1st ed.). University of California Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnfnq
  2. Ackerman, J. (2020). The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think. Penguin.
  3. Schwing, R., Nelson, X. J., Wein, A., & Parsons, S. (2017). Positive emotional contagion in a New Zealand parrot. Current Biology, 27(6), R213–R214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.020
  4. Heaney, M., Gray, R., & Taylor, A. (2017). Keas perform similarly to chimpanzees and elephants when solving collaborative tasks. PLOS ONE, 12, e0169799. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0169799
  5. Goodman, M., Hayward, T., & Hunt, G. R. (2018). Habitual tool use innovated by free-living New Zealand kea. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 13935. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-32363-9
  6. Pellis, S., Pellis, V., & Broccard-Bell, H. (2011). The function of play in the development of the social brain. American Journal of Play, 2, 278–296.
  7. Reid, C., Gartrell, B., Stafford, K., & Minot, E. (2014). Understanding attacks by Kea (Nestor notabilis), an endemic high country parrot, on sheep in New Zealand. Conference paper, 26th International Ornithological Congress.
  8. Brunton-Martin, A., Nichols, M., & Gaskett, A. (2021). Assessing kea perception of cereal baits using modelling of spectral reflectance. New Zealand Journal of Ecology. https://doi.org/10.20417/nzjecol.45.3

Main image by Markus Koljonan [source]

Edited by Jessica Schaefer

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