A bold idea to save the kea

by Jenny Nicholls / 15 September, 2018
Kea

A kea on Avalanche Peak, Arthur's Pass. Photo/Getty.

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On his best night, he shot 67 birds.

Using a single-shot .22 rifle, with moonlight or a torch to guide him, hunter Albie Collins shot kea all winter. He would start his killing spree in the late afternoon, and wind up around 2am. On his best night, he told a journalist, he shot 67 birds.

Collins, who died in 1998, got his start as a professional kea killer on Mt Aspiring Station in the early 1940s. In his first winter, he bagged 400 kea. The pay was great, he told one journalist after his retirement, but the conditions were tough. Not everyone can lie for hours on a snowy ridge in the dark, waiting for birds.

By 1970, efficient hunters like Collins had polished off an estimated 150,000 kea. Killing the birds paid so well, you could do it for a living.

Mountaineer Philip Temple called it “one of the worst cases of avicide in history”. The bounty on kea varied over the years, but in the 1920s it was 10 shillings “per beak”. Half was paid by the government, and the rest divvied up between council and farmer. “The 10 shillings of 1925,” wrote Temple, “is the equivalent today of $65 – a clear incentive to full-time hunting.”

Collins certainly thought so. “I’d charge £3 a day and £1 each beak. I mayn’t have seen my wife and kids much, but she was never in danger of having her credit cut at the store.”

When the government finally conducted a “bird census”, they found 5000 surviving kea. The bounty system was abolished in 1970, although kea were not protected until 1986.

Although largely vegetarian, kea are omnivorous and can also attack sheep, earning them their “most wanted” status among farmers.

Collins, the kea killer, said the birds tended to kill sheep in the spring, particularly after a severe winter when the ground was too hard for them to dig up roots and grubs.

‘“It’s nothing in winter to find 40 or 50 sheep kea-ed, torn to bits. You’ve got to concentrate on the killer birds, though. There might be only one killer in 100 birds, and some groups have no killers in them at all.”

While it is comforting to think meat-eating killer kea are a few “bad apples”, their carnivory, like ours, is an ancient impulse. Bones of moa trapped in swamps have been found with damage to the pelvis that looks suspiciously like kea attacks.

While a living sheep stuck in a snow drift getting its kidney fat removed by Collins’ “black-beaked beggar” is a nightmare image, the bounty system has hastened the extinction of one of the world’s most astonishing birds.

“They’ll chase each other through the air, doing loops and spirals and wheeling side-by-side, before landing in the same spot from which they took off,” writes kea fan, British science writer Ed Yong. “They’ll toss a rock back and forth, like some kind of parrot tennis. They’ll sneak up and briefly grab each other by the feet. They’ll wrestle: one kea will lie on its back like a kitten, and the other will jump on it.”

By any measure, members of the parrot family are smart. But the kea’s raging intelligence is legendary. The suggestion, for instance, that kea move traffic cones near the Homer Tunnel in Fiordland to stop snack-laden cars speeding past them raises few eyebrows among the kea cognoscenti.

Auckland University biologist Dr Alex Taylor is one of several international researchers studying kea intelligence. “We wanted to see if they would trade tokens for food,” he told the New Zealand Herald in 2015. “So they give you a stone and you give them some food to see if they would get an understanding of that kind of cooperation between a human and an animal.

“One of the researchers, PhD candidate Megan Heaney, did a few transfers backwards and forwards and, since then, every time the kea see her they run up with a stick or a stone and try to trade it.”

Kea’s curiosity makes them extremely easy to study. “For most birds, you need hides and blinds,” says Raoul Schwing from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. “But if you see a kea flying in the distance, you can make as much noise as possible and wave things around, and they’ll make a beeline for you.”

Last year, he published a scientific paper that earned kea headlines around the world.

Schwing reports that when he replayed a warbling kea call – that he dubbed the “play call” – kea would invariably begin to play. Kea would join other playing kea – or begin playing with a nearby bird, even if they hadn’t been playing before.

If there were no other kea around, the bird would perform solitary acrobatics and rock throwing  – playing the fool, in other words. Acting the goat. Schwing called this “positive emotional contagion”. Yong describes the call’s infectious quality in more familiar terms, as “just like human laughter”. Almost no other adult animals except humans, he says, are known to behave this way.

Old-timer Collins clearly had zero doubts about whether the birds laugh or not. “I’d hate to be lying hurt out on the hill,” he said darkly, “with a mob of keas giggling at me.’’

Kea come from an elderly twig on the parrot family tree, a branch older than the mountains they frequent. Some 56 million years of parrot evolution lie between them and tropical relatives such as parakeets, budgies and macaws. We don’t know when the ancient ancestor of kea and kākā arrived here. But we do know that as the kea evolved it lived as far north as Waitomo, roaming from highlands to sea shore.

Kea bones have even been found on a beach in the Wairarapa. “We need to stop thinking of kea as just being an ‘alpine’ parrot,” says Alan Tennyson, the curator in charge of Te Papa’s vast fossil vertebrate collection. “The kea is certainly unusual for a parrot in that it spends a lot of time in very cold climates, but it does range down to sea level today and, in the past it seems that it was much more common at low altitudes.”

It was Tennyson’s own spine-tingling discovery that led to a change in our understanding about where kea live. While he was re-housing a fossil bone collection at Te Papa in 2001, Tennyson noticed two small bird bones – humerus and ulna – labelled “kākā”. “They were slightly larger than kākā bones, yet they had distinctive features showing that there were from parrots.”

They were not kākā bones at all; they were kea.

A few thousand years old, the bones had been found in land that was once a swamp, at Poukawa, outside Hastings.

“It’s always good to find something new that challenges existing ideas,” Tennyson told North & South. “I only became 100% convinced once other more definitive kea bones, including a nice beak, came to light in sand dunes at another North Island site, Mataikona in the Wairarapa.”

Tennyson’s discoveries build on the work of palaeontologists Trevor Worthy and Richard Holdaway, who, like Tennyson, found so-called “kākā” fossils in a Canterbury museum archive that were actually kea. They had been discovered in a cave near Waitomo.

So why don’t kea live in the North Island today? “The most likely reason,” says Tennyson, “is that mammalian predators – including people – have driven them out of lowland areas.” 

Given the new way of seeing our “alpine parrot”, at least one expert is calling for their reintroduction into predator-free zones in the North Island. “We could – and should – reintroduce kea to predator-free forest in the North Island,” says the former curator of Natural History at Whanganui Regional Museum, New Zealand’s Wikipedian-at-Large, Dr Mike Dickison. “They’d do well on Mt Ruapehu.”

It is a bold idea. But kea need this kind of radical thinking if they are to survive. Only 1000-5000 of them hang on in a restricted range, threatened by a range of dangers, from possums to the lead from roofing nails.

“Several projects are now underway to protect the birds,” writes Yong, hopefully, “and to avert a future when the last, lonely kea jumps into an updraft, hovers with delight, makes a play call, and gets only silence in response.”

Perhaps, you might say, we owe them.

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of North & South.

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