Story: Birds of open country
Page 3 – Kea and people
Kea are either loved for their elaborate antics or disliked for the damage they can do. Pranks include sliding down hut roofs before dawn, knocking over a ski to ride downhill, or stealing metal objects such as nails – which the birds leave in a hiding place, sorted by size. They can solve complex intelligence tests.
One winter a group of kea at a Craigieburn Range ski hut came up with a new prank. A small gang of birds waited on the snow-covered roof over a doorway. They were alerted by a nearby sentry each time an unsuspecting occupant was about to exit the hut, and with precision timing would kick snow onto the person’s head, cackling raucously. By the following winter, the trick had spread to Arthur’s Pass, 30 kilometres away.
Kea investigate anything and everything with their immensely strong beaks, tongues, and hand-like claws. They work out how to open all sorts of containers, particularly rubbish bins, in search of titbits. In mountain huts and villages it is a challenge to devise a kea-proof container. Residents who leave doors open may return to find upholstery and mats shredded.
Climbers and trampers learn that unguarded tents, packs, boots and clothing are at risk. Rubber wiper-blades and door seals of cars are a source of playful delight to a kea. Unfortunately many of the synthetic materials they swallow do them more harm than good.
Natural foods include nectar, flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, stems, leaves and buds of many plants from beech forests and alpine areas. A lot of these foods are low in energy, but grubs and other invertebrates provide a boost of fat and protein. Kea also feed on carrion and sometimes live prey. They would have eaten moa, flightless geese and other easy prey before these were exterminated by early Polynesian settlers (the ancestors of Māori). Kea numbers probably fell as a result.
Kea and sheep
When runholders began farming sheep in the high country from the 1870s, there were rich pickings for kea. Due to a combination of poor farming practices and severe winters, there were many dead sheep to scavenge, as well as live animals trapped in snowdrifts. Kea were seen on the backs of live sheep, pecking fat from around the kidneys. This higher-energy diet meant that their population increased considerably.
Kea were blamed for low productivity on farms, although plagues of newly introduced wild rabbits and pigs were a major factor. A government wanting to be seen to act introduced a bounty on kea, providing an easy way to make money during the economic depression. Kea gained full legal protection in 1986 – but by then an estimated 150,000 had been shot. Some farmers would leave out poisoned sheepskins or other harmful materials such as fibreglass insulation to kill the birds.
Today farmers are encouraged to contact the Department of Conservation, who will take away individual birds identified as serial offenders.