New Zealand’s Kea aren’t nicknamed “clowns of the Alps” for nothing. The feisty birds announce themselves with a loud piercing cry of ‘Keee-a!’ and are always on the lookout for mischief.
While other high-profile New Zealand birds such as the kiwi and kakapo aren’t easy to spot in the wild, kea are one of the few wild birds that actually seek out humans.
Kea, the world’s only alpine parrots, are found exclusively in New Zealand’s South Island. They’re mostly seen in high country and mountainous areas although the excellent flyers have been known to take the odd trip to the coast.
Visitors often encounter the cheeky birds at South Island ski fields, during a stop at Arthur’s Pass, huts in Mount Aspiring National Park and on many of the South Island’s great walks.
Steve Norris, a guide who takes small groups on walks in Fiordland with his company Trips and Tramps describes kea as “real characters” who love interacting with people. “They are amazing birds and a New Zealand icon in their own right.”
Although kea are not known to “talk” like some other parrots, they’re considered to be as smart as a four year old child and have intelligence similar to primates.
They are able to solve logic puzzles and enjoy a good challenge. However, their inquisitive nature often lands the emerald green birds in trouble.
Kea are famous for snaffling anything they can get their hooked bill and large, strong claws into. That includes wallets, passports and the odd tourist lunch. They are known to rip holes in tents and nibble away the rubber from windscreen wipers and car doors.
Hunters, farmers and hikers have encountered kea which have figured out how to remove rubbish bin lids and to open sliding doors. One kea even learned that if it carried a piece of firewood to a bush hut each day and then knocked on the door it would get food in exchange.
To try to keep the birds out of harm's way, conservationists have developed roadside kea gyms.
The idea of gyms began after road workers were left puzzled when they found road cones in odd places each time they returned to work at the Homer Tunnel at the entrance to world heritage site Milford Sound.
When the road crews checked CCTV footage, they discovered that a group of kea were responsible for shifting the cones.
While it’s possible that they moved them purely for their own entertainment, some experts believe that the birds purposely pushed them into the road, forcing traffic to stop and so giving the kea a chance to beg for food from tourists.
Infrastructure services company Downer which maintains the highway found the inquisitive birds to be a significant safety hazard and supported the installation of a kea roadside gym.
The kea playground is equipped with ladders, spinning flotation devices, swings and climbing frames which kea can play with, or dismantle, in an attempt to distract them from danger and from causing damage.
The company monitors the gym with cameras so that researchers from the University of Canterbury can analyse kea behaviour and develop new ways of interacting with the birds.
Tamsin Orr-Walker from the Kea Conservation Trust says with only about 5,000 kea remaining in the wild, the birds are listed as nationally endangered and their numbers are decreasing.
While kea were voted New Zealand’s “bird of the year” in 2017, not everyone loves the cheeky parrots.
They have been known to cause headaches for sheep farmers, often hassling livestock and occasionally even injuring them, causing death.
Between 1860 and 1970 the sheep farming community put a bounty on kea beaks, and at least 150,000 were slayed before kea gained full protection in 1986.
The brazen parrots still make enemies by damaging parked cars, buildings and forestry equipment as well as stealing food.
Orr-Walker says that kea face three main dangers today.
Introduced species such as stoats, possums and feral cats are raiding their ground-based nests. Recent studies from the Kea Conservation Trust have found that two-thirds of all chicks never reach fledgling stage.
Kea’s penchant for lead also poisons many birds. The metal tastes sweet to the birds and they enjoy licking and chewing the lead nails and flashings on older houses and huts.
The other main danger kea face comes from direct contact with humans, such as being hit by cars or being fed inappropriate food.
“The kea gyms are designed to draw kea away from at risk areas such as roads. Hopefully they will reduce the likelihood of kea damaging human property by providing other areas of interest,” the Orr-Walker says.
“It is also hoped that the gyms will provide an opportunity to educate people about not feeding kea and the importance of protecting our remnant kea populations,” she adds.
Orr-Walker has one plea for anyone encountering a kea in the wild. “If you love our cheeky mountain parrots, don’t give them a death sentence by feeding them.”