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Phillip the kea unties a tourist’s shoelace. Photo/Mike White

Kea face every threat imaginable – can they make a comeback?

Kea are one of our most iconic birds – but they’re in trouble. Numbers have plummeted and they are now considered endangered. Mike White travels to Fiordland to find out what’s causing their decline, and to see if anything can be done to stop it.

Phillip was a star. Phillip was king of Monkey Creek, where tourists stopped on their way to Milford Sound. Phillip worked the crowd, peered into campervans and leapt from vehicle to vehicle, with photographers trailing him. He ripped out rubber seals with a beak like an ice axe, attacked aerials, and pecked at bags: Phillip was king, but also a common thug.

He danced around the carpark hoping for treats, accosting tourists and tugging on shoelaces. He was neither anxious nor angry, but constantly busy.

Surrounding him were great granite peaks, vertical slabs of glistening grey with snow on top and bush below. There were waterfalls, valleys where glaciers once lay, and a blue sky that coloured in the gaps between summits.

And here was Phillip, now on top of a white campervan, which was on the move, pulling out of the carpark and rejoining the highway. He slid a little, but steadied himself as the van picked up speed and swept round a left-hand bend 100m away. Phillip hung on tight, and was last seen, one wing stretched out as if for balance, feather tips riffling furiously, gloriously car-surfing through a tunnel of beech forest. 

A kea takes a fancy to a tourist’s hat.
Two days before, in nearby Te Ānau, 100 people gathered in a hotel, with Phillip on their minds. He was the archetypal kea – curious, cheeky, charismatic – and at real risk of dying. Those attending the Kea Conservation Trust’s conference in December knew these risks and knew the birds’ worrying plight – but also knew most New Zealanders have no idea how bad things are.

The population of the world’s only alpine parrot is hard to pinpoint, but best estimates are that just 3000-7000 kea remain, all in the South Island. In comparison, there are about 70,000 kiwi. 

Phillip attacks a rubber seal on a  car parked on the road to Milford Sound.

Deemed villains by farmers because they attacked sheep, for a century the government put a bounty on kea, reaching the equivalent of $120 a head at one stage. More than 150,000 were shot before the bounty was removed, and they were protected in 1986.

Numbers settled, but in the past 20 years, studies and reports from those in New Zealand’s high country have shown often drastic declines in kea populations, with their risk status raised from vulnerable to endangered.

Speaker after speaker at the Te Ānau conference outlined the reasons: plagues of predators such as stoats and feral cats; lead poisoning from eating building material; being hit by cars in tourist areas; people still shooting them because they’re seen as a nuisance; and even the black market trade, with captive kea being seen in the Middle East, Japan and a Russian market.

Related articles: On a wing and a prayer: The battle to save our native birds | The elusive native bird living on the edge of extinction | The search for the missing bar-tailed godwit

Left: Lydia McLean, a PhD student from the University of Canterbury, weighs a kea that has just been banded, before releasing it. Right: A rubbish dump beside the Homer Tunnel in Fiordland National Park, where kea conservationists found more than 6kg of lead.

The trust has considered having a celebrity ambassador bird to promote their work, like Sirocco the spokesbird for kākāpō, but their candidates keep dying.

Department of Conservation scientist Josh Kemp studied kea in Nelson Lakes National Park in the 1990s and found 10 breeding pairs. A follow-up study a decade later found just three, and the situation there is “still pretty dire”, Kemp says. In other areas, such as the Catlins and West Otago’s Blue Mountains, kea have disappeared completely. Around Mavora Lakes and the Eyre Mountains, southwest of Lake Wakatipu, three recent trips have found no birds.

The problem was particularly bad in the east of the South Island, with feral cats believed to be the main culprits, and Kemp says his biggest fear is the kea’s range will continue to reduce dramatically. “I think the public generally don’t understand the knife-edge a whole lot of our species are on, including kea. Kākā, the long and short-tailed bats, mōhua, yellow-crowned parakeets, the giant land snails. A whole lot of things have gone extinct and there’s a whole lot of things that are about to go extinct from the mainland if we stand by and watch them. And kea are just part of that picture.” 

Kea specialist Laura Young.

Laura Young knows Phillip well. A few hours before his car-surfing escapade, Young, an ecologist who splits her work between DoC and the Kea Conservation Trust, had managed to catch Phillip so she could check his health and lead levels. “Ah, shit!” she erupted as she weighed him in at a healthy 1kg and he latched on to a fingernail that was growing back after being bitten by another kea.

Young, who in 2004 rediscovered a species believed to be extinct – the Canterbury knobbled weevil – is fondly known to her colleagues as “kea mum”. Her passion for the species came while doing a PhD on how alpine plant seeds are dispersed. After dissecting nearly 100,000 animal poo samples, Young found kea were the most important species in spreading these plants.

But what she also found in these samples was the devastating amount of plastic, rubber and other dangerous material being eaten by kea. Regarded as one of the world’s most intelligent birds, and innately inquisitive, the kea’s personality causes endless problems, particularly near human activity. They rip open baleage on farms; destroy forestry equipment; shred spa pool covers, tarpaulins and car windscreen wipers.

Laura Young, a kea specialist known to colleagues as “kea mum”, shows where she lost her fingernail to a kea bite.

Much of the trouble stems from people feeding kea, which encourages them to congregate near townships like Arthur’s Pass – areas known as scrounging sites. Here, they are also drawn to lead flashings and nail heads that were commonly used in buildings prior to 1990 and are soft enough for kea to play with and eat. Further afield, they also eat animals killed by hunters using lead shot. Without specialist treatment, kea will quickly die from lead poisoning, or be hit by cars because the lead affects their nervous system and ability to move.

In the month before Young came to the conference, six kea had died in Arthur’s Pass due to lead poisoning. Young estimates most kea there have lead poisoning, especially young birds – some with levels so high they exceed the range of her testing equipment. Frustratingly, despite offers to remove lead from houses, many home owners remain reluctant to do anything.

Some of the birds killed by vehicles on the road to Milford Sound during 2019. As well as the risks posed by predators, lead poisoning, and shooting, kea are often hit by vehicles when hanging around popular tourist carparks.

Even in Fiordland, where there are few settlements, birds are still being poisoned by lead, victims of abandoned construction material.

At the Homer Tunnel, a popular spot for kea, Young recently recovered 6kg of lead from an ugly dump of metal hidden just out of tourists’ view.

“It gets pretty demoralising. It’s depressing knowing we can do something about it, but it’s so hard to make progress. And that’s what causes me so many sleepless nights.”

Because kea nest on the ground in forest holes or scrubland cavities, they’re easily killed by predators. Stoats and possums grab eggs and chicks, ferrets and feral cats kill adults. “They look pretty robust and feisty, but seriously, their curiosity gets the better of them and they’ll see a predator and don’t have this instinct to fly away – and often they’ll come and investigate,” says Young.

“When you’ve been following a nest for years and years and you go in and find a dead adult female, that’s the worst, it’s just devastating. I really feel helpless. The solutions seem quite easy but there seem to be these huge obstacles. Kea just face every threat imaginable – much more so than other birds.” 

An adult kea in Fiordland has a blood sample taken to test for lead levels, which are often dangerously high.
Of course, one of the obvious solutions for kea survival is pest control – killing the stoats and possums and rats and cats that prey on kea. Currently, one of the ways of doing this is by dropping 1080 poison. But this poses particular problems for kea, which have now become used to eating different foods, and have sometimes died after consuming 1080 pellets. A study of 1080 operations between 2008 and 2016 showed 24 of 222 radio-tracked kea died after eating the poison.

These deaths have been seized on by anti-1080 protestors – one of whom, Peter Lusk, extravagantly claimed in 2017 there were only 70 kea left in the wild due to 1080 poisoning.

Nobody denies kea have died from 1080, but the reality is that predators cause far more deaths, and without it, overall kea losses would be much higher, says Jamie McAulay, a DoC senior biodiversity ranger in Te Ānau.

With pest control, including the use of 1080, about 70% of kea nests produce chicks each year – without it, that success rate drops to less than 40%. And after mast years, where the forest produces large quantities of seeds that lead to an explosion of rats and stoats, fewer than 10% of kea nests survive predator attacks. DoC insists dropping 1080 allows them to cover hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest, giving kea and other species a chance to breed successfully.

“It’s the shittiest decision a wildlife manager ever has to make,” says McAulay. “Either we do something that will cause harm to some birds, or do nothing and watch the species die away.”

Dave Hansford, who wrote the book Protecting Paradise, says anti-1080 protestors have misleadingly made kea a martyr for their cause.

Dave Hansford, whose book Protecting Paradise examined the 1080 issue, says kea have been used as martyrs by those opposed to 1080, and claims such as those made by Lusk were “patent nonsense. They’re misrepresenting the case because they never talk about the clear benefits of aerial pest control in terms of breeding productivity and success. It’s horrible to think about kea dying from 1080 poisoning – nobody wants that. But it’s pretty horrible to watch that video of a stoat going into a kea nest hole and tearing those chicks apart over two hours.

“These people never stop thinking of new ways to try to practise a deception. There’s pretty much no lie they won’t tell if they think it’s going to help them secure their agenda. So we can expect to see them going on and on about kea.”

What frustrates Hansford most is that DoC is spending more than $10 million to increase security for its staff against anti-1080 protestors – money that could go a long way towards aiding kea recovery. “They [the protestors] are a serious and, frankly, irritating distraction to the business of saving our wildlife.”

Phillip investigates the hatch on a campervan.
A cream scone tickled Lou Sanson’s moustache at the kea conference’s morning tea as the director general of conservation summed up their pest control predicament.

“Nobody likes using 1080, but we don’t have any other alternatives at the moment. We don’t want to kill kea, and every kea death is used against us by the anti-1080 movement.”

Nicknamed “Loose Nuts Lou” by 1080 opponents after he alleged they were tampering with wheel-nuts on DoC vehicles, Sanson says research using repellents to stop kea eating 1080 has been tremendously positive. This allowed massive drops of the poison in south Westland’s Perth Valley, which killed all stoats and nearly all possums and rats, while only two kea died.

However, despite the predator control being carried out, 75% of kea territory currently has no pest control at all, leaving the birds there to an unpredictable and likely depressing fate.

Sanson has a particular fondness for kea, after years tramping in the Southern Alps. In the recent Bird of the Year contest, his first vote was for the critically endangered Antipodean albatross, but kea were his second pick. Even though the country’s latest Great Walk (the Paparoa Track) was being opened that day, Sanson felt it was a priority for him to be at the Te Ānau conference to support those protecting kea.

“They’re a huge worry, because they’re such an iconic species – part of our character, really – and they’re getting hammered in the east. We need a breakthrough on cats, we absolutely do. Gareth Morgan did a lot to shift the whole dial on cats and we need to just keep going. They’re doing far more damage than we first thought.”

In the west, things were more positive, with the benefits of 1080 and trapping beginning to be seen, something that had been clear to Sanson that morning, before arriving at the conference. The previous night, he’d tramped up to Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track and dossed down on the verandah.

When he got up at 5am, “there were shitloads of kea everywhere. I’d never seen so many kea up there. I was just waking up and there’s this beautiful pink light and they were all just going for it. Incredible, eh.”

The survival of kea would indicate how well all our other species were faring, says Peter Hillary, patron of Kea Conservation Trust.
The return of kea to the Kepler Track has been rare good news for those working to save the species, and a sign they’re recovering in parts of Fiordland. Peter Hillary can attest to that. The mountaineer and son of Sir Edmund Hillary was camping in the Rockburn Valley, north of Glenorchy, recently with one of his sons, Alexander, and was besieged by kea all night during a full moon.

“It was like Chinese water torture. Every 10 to 20 minutes they’d land on the tent or attack the guy ropes – they were relentless. And when I poked my head out the next morning, there were about four of them just standing there, going, ‘Who, me?’”

During the night, they stole pots and cups – and Alexander’s new trail shoes. “When we found them, the insoles had been taken out and turned into little chips, like cornflakes, and there was a pretty good bit of exploration around the heel and toe of the shoes.”

Peter Hillary, patron of Kea Conservation Trust.

But for all their mischievious habits, we just have to learn to live with kea, says Hillary, who is patron of the Kea Conservation Trust. “They’re the heart and soul of the Southern Alps and the core of wild New Zealand. They’ve always encapsulated the excitement of the mountains – the cry of the kea, this rascal of a bird up high – and we need to treasure them.”

When Hillary was a boy, his family would camp near Wānaka each summer and visit the Aspinalls, who owned Mt Aspiring Station. “I remember, outside, strung up along the fence, were these dead kea, with their orange feathers – boom, boom, boom, boom – half a dozen or more, because all the runholders just shot them. And you’d think, my god, what have they done to deserve this? Why were they enemies of the state, for heaven’s sake?”

But Hillary was also taught to love the natural world, and for decades has shared his alpine adventures with kea. “They’re masters of living up there at the snowline in the mountains – it’s a tough place to make a living – and I’ve felt a great affinity for them. We should be immensely proud of them.”

Hillary says kea are a conservation canary in the mine: if they are doing well, it means our pest control is working and all the species below them are prospering, too. “It would be a statement of our failure to protect everything we love if we failed to save kea.”

McLean and Department of Conservation ranger Jamie McAulay band an adult kea on the road to Milford Sound.
Byron had smooth olive feathers, yellow markings around his eyes and beak that showed he was a young bird, and a cry that pierced the mountain sky. He’d been briefly caught in Arthur’s Pass in February 2019 and given a leg band with the number nine on a light blue background.

But in late November, Byron was found to be ill and taken to the South Island Wildlife Hospital in Christchurch. “He was in a terrible condition,” says Pauline Howard, the hospital’s head vet. “He was emaciated, he’d lost all his body condition, and he just wouldn’t stop vomiting, no matter what we did. And he was making this horrible, sad, really pathetic crying sound, which is never a good sign.”

Byron’s stomach was full of lead, his blood levels off the scale of Howard’s equipment. Five days later, despite treatment, he died. Byron is one of more than 20 kea Howard has treated for lead poisoning since 2017, with no sign of the situation improving. A week after Byron’s death, Howard drove through the night to retrieve three more young kea – Tamsin, Lynn and Featherman – from Arthur’s Pass who were all suffering from lead poisoning.

While some kea survive and can be returned to the wild, the ones that don’t make it break Howard’s heart a little each time. “They’re such intelligent birds and you do get attached to them. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to not being able to fix them up.”

If there’s one thing she could do to help kea, it would be to stop people feeding them, which makes them hang around towns, where they’re more likely to eat lead from roofs and elsewhere. A fed kea is a dead kea, say those trying to save the birds, who want it to be an offence under the Wildlife Act to feed them, as well as much harsher penalties for those who harm or kill kea when they damage property.

But for now, all Howard can do is provide the ambulance and patiently treat the sick birds she finds. “And when you let one of them go and it flies off so fast you can’t get a picture of it, that’s when it’s really heart-warming.”

I, Kea

  • Known as an alpine parrot, kea are actually at home in the forest and can live happily near sea level.
  • They are found only in the South Island, and not on Stewart Island.
  • Juveniles can be distinguished by the yellow markings around their eyes, beak and cere (nostrils), which they lose when they reach maturity at about three or four years.
  • Adults can grow to about 1kg and are thought to live to around 30 years in the wild.
  • Pairs usually mate for life.
  • They have numerous calls to communicate with each other, and are one of the only species where adults and young play for sheer pleasure.
  • Their name comes from the cry they make: keeeeaaaaa.
  • Their scientific name, nestor notabilis, loosely translates to wise and remarkable/noteworthy.
  • Kea are a taonga species under the Ngāi Tahu settlement.

This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more great stories.