Parrots of New Zealand gathered on mountains, islands and forests to celebrate World Parrot Day on May 31.
While we hate to parrot on about how great our native birds are, we just can't help sing the praises of our four endemic species; kea, kakapo, kaka and kakariki. New Zealand truly is a parrot-dise.
Kea: The clever clowns of the mountains
The kea is the world’s only alpine parrot and one of the smartest birds around. Researchers say that their intelligence rivals those of primates and even four-year-old children.
They have emerald green plumage, edged with black and bright orange feathers and can become as large as a cat. Their cheeky nature has earned them the nickname “clowns of the mountain”.
New research has shown that kea, unlike any other birds, have a song that is similar to an infectious laugh. It’s a specific shriek which invites others to play - a trait previously only seen in chimpanzees and rats.
Young kea hang out in gangs until they find their mate, who they generally stay with for life. They can often be seen at South Island ski fields, mountain huts and villages, where they chase each other or play practical jokes on humans. They enjoy swooping down to pinch people’s food or belongings, or to drop stones on them.
Despite being crowned New Zealand’s Bird of the Year in 2017 not everyone loves the brazen parrots. They make enemies by damaging parked cars, buildings and forestry equipment as well as attacking stock and stealing food.
Kea are listed as nationally endangered and face dangers from introduced species such as stoats, possums and feral cats, from lead poisoning from from old buildings in the backcountry, and from direct contact with humans, such as being hit by cars or being fed inappropriate food.
Tempting though it might be, the Department of Conservation urges people not to feed the birds as a diet of human food can easily result in premature death.
Where to spot them: Kea live only in the South Island of New Zealand. They are often seen in Arthurs Pass village, mountain huts in Mount Aspiring National Park and on many of the South Island’s great walks.
Population: 3,000–7,000 (estimated)
Conservation status: Threatened–Nationally Endangered
Listen to a kea: Kea song
Kākā - the comeback success story
Kākā are slightly smaller than the kea, and sport olive/brown feathers and scarlet plumage under its wing.
They can be found in large forested areas on both the North and South Islands as well as on several offshore islands, and travel widely in search of food. They can crack open nuts and seeds with their beaks, and scrape bark from trees, sometimes tapping the sap from beech, mountain tōtara, and southern rātā.
Despite being targeted by predators like cats, stoats and rats, and having to compete with wasps for shimmering honeydew, these noisy birds have made an impressive comeback thanks to New Zealand’s trailblazing conservation efforts.
Kākā, as with many of New Zealand’s endangered species, only have a chance of survival in safe havens on islands or in protected reserves such as Wellington’s Zealandia - a 225 hectare fenced ecosanctuary.
Zealandia, a short drive from the city centre, has been working on restoring its forest’s biodiversity for two decades and the area is now brimming with birdlife.
From being extinct in Wellington, kākā have become a common sight in the capital’s backyards and the Botanical Gardens with over 800 birds banded since their reintroduction in 2002.
Where to spot them: The North Island kākā can be found on offshore islands, such as Little Barrier and Great Barrier Islands, Kāpiti Island, Wellington’s Zealandia and surrounding suburbs and Pukaha Mount Bruce forest in eastern Wairarapa. The South Island subspecies can be found in Nelson, the West Coast, and on Stewart Island, Ulva Island and on Codfish Island.
Conservation status: North Island kākā are At Risk (Recovering) and South Island kākā are Nationally Vulnerable. Chatham Islands kākā are extinct.
Listen to: North Island kākā sound file
Kākāpo - the oddest, fattest parrot in the world
The rarest, and surely oddest, of New Zealand’s parrots is the kākāpo. While not quite as smart as the kea, the flightless, nocturnal birds are not nearly as dumb as their reputation.
British zoologist Mark Carwardine labelled them “the world's largest, fattest, least able-to-fly parrot. It’s as affectionate as a dog, as playful as a kitten and it can inflate itself with air to become the size and shape of a football."
They’re also possibly the longest-living bird species in the world, estimated to reach 90 years of age.
The problem with kākāpo, which can weigh up to four kilograms, is that they seem to have forgotten that they can’t fly. If they get very frightened they can run up a tree and then fall down like a rock.
They forage on the ground as New Zealand had no native mammals (apart from bats). Unfortunately this means they never had to develop much of a defence strategy and numbers have declined due to introduced mammals.
Today there may be as little as 149 of the adorable birds left.
Where to spot them: Sadly there aren’t many opportunities to spot kākāpo. Most of the remaining birds live on Codfish Island, with some living on Anchor Island and Little Barrier Island. Access to these remote islands is strictly restricted.
Conservation status: Threatened–Nationally Critical
Listen: Female kakapo song
Kākāriki - the beautiful parakeet
Kākāriki are New Zealand’s beautiful little parakeets. The smallest of the country’s parrots, they weigh between 40 and 80 grams and are aptly named - kākāriki means green in Māori. They feed on berries, seeds, fruit and insects, and generally nest in holes in trees.
The bright emerald birds were once abundant and widely spread. Early settlers reported seeing huge flocks of kākāriki in forested areas and in their orchards and crops. The birds were once so common that their feathers were used to stuff mattresses.
They have become scare on the main islands but have survived well on outlying islands and through breeding in captivity. Red and yellow-crowned kākāriki are the only New Zealand native bird species that can legally to be kept as a pet.
Like kākā, the tiny kākāriki have also flourished well in Wellington’s protected habitat Zealandia and can now occasionally be spotted in the city.
Where to spot them: Kākāriki can be found in Zealandia and on many offshore islands including Little Barrier Island and Tiritiri Matangi Island, Kapiti Island, Matiu/Somes in Wellington Harbour and Tawharanui Regional Park.
Conservation status: Red-crowned kākāriki are At Risk (Relict), the yellow-crowned kākāriki are not threatened while there are only 100 to 300 orange-fronted kākāriki left and are classified as Threatened–Nationally Critical.
Listen: Red-crowned parakeet/Kākāriki