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Car crazy kea | by Steve Attwood
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Car crazy kea

An increasingly threatened bird, little is known about the reasons for the decline in the population of kea, indigenous to New Zealand and the world's only alpine parrot. There are now fewer kea than there are tigers, but unfortunately they have not excited the same international clamour for their preservation!

 

Kea – Nestor notabilis (family Strigopidae).

 

This kea at Arthur's Pass made bird photography easy, first sitting on the roof of my car to peck at the aerial, and then perching on the rear vision mirror while I was in the driver seat, photographing it with a zoom lens down at about 24mm!

 

A protected rare species of alpine parrot endemic to New Zealand.

Found in forested and alpine regions of the South Island.

Little is known about their population except that it seems to be in decline (c. 5000 birds).

The Kea was once killed for bounty as it occasionally preyed on livestock, especially sheep. It is now known that only a few kea learn this trick and most kea seen on dead sheep are scavanging an already dead carcass.

It only received full protection in 1986.

Kea nest in burrows or crevices among the roots of trees. They are regarded as one of the most intelligent birds in the world, and for their insatiable curiosity, both vital to their survival in a harsh mountain environment. Kea can solve logical puzzles, such as pushing and pulling things in a certain order to get to food, and will work together to achieve a certain objective.

The Kea is a large parrot about 48 cm (19 in) long and weighing about 1 kg (2.2 lb). It has mostly olive-green plumage with a grey beak having a long narrow curved upper beak. The adult has dark-brown irises, and the cere, eyerings, and legs are grey. It has orange feathers on the undersides of its wings. The feathers on the sides of its face are dark olive-brown, feathers on its back and rump are orange-red, and some of the outer wing feathers are dull-blue. It has a short and broad bluish-green tail with a black tip. Feather shafts project at the tip of the tail and the undersides of the inner tail feathers have yellow-orange transverse stripes. The male is about 5% longer than the female, and the male's upper beak is 12–14% longer than the female's. Juveniles generally resemble adults, but have yellow eyerings and cere, an orange-yellow lower beak, and grey-yellow legs. Kea range from lowland river valleys and coastal forests of the westcoast up to the alpine regions of the South Island such as Arthur's Pass and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, closely associated throughout its range with the southern beech (Nothofagus) forests in the alpine ridge. Apart from occasional vagrants, Kea are not found in the North Island, although fossil evidence suggests a population lived there over 10,000 years ago. The population was estimated at between 1,000 and 5,000 individuals in 1986, contrasting with another estimate of 15,000 birds in 1992. Both estimates depend heavily upon the assumptions made. The Kea's widespread distribution at low density across inaccessible areas prevents accurate estimates. Their notorious urge to explore and manipulate, combined with strong attraction to anything new or different in their environment makes this bird a pest for residents and an attraction for tourists. Called "the clown of the mountains", it will investigate backpacks, boots or even cars, often causing damage or flying off with smaller items. People commonly encounter wild Kea at South Island ski areas. The Kea are attracted by the prospect of food scraps. Their curiosity leads them to peck and carry away unguarded items of clothing or to pry apart rubber parts of cars—to the entertainment and annoyance of human observers. They are often described as "cheeky". A Kea has even been reported to have made off with a Scottish man's passport while he was visiting Fiordland, and theft of car keys, leaving tourists stranded, is a story that has passed into legend.

Mortality is high among young Kea, with less than 40% surviving their first year. The median lifespan of a wild subadult Kea has been estimated at 5 years, based on the proportion of Kea seen again in successive seasons in Arthur's Pass, and allowing for some emigration to surrounding areas. Around 10% of the local Kea population were expected to be over 20 years of age. The oldest known captive Kea was 50 years old in 2008. At least one observer has reported that the Kea is polygynous, with one male attached to multiple females. The same source noted that there was a surplus of females. Kea are social and live in groups of up to 13 birds. Isolated individuals do badly in captivity but respond well to mirror images. In one study, nest sites occur at a density of 1 per 4.4 km². The breeding areas are most commonly in Southern Beech (Nothofagus) forests, located on steep mountain sides. Breeding at heights of 1600 m above sea level and higher, it is one of the few parrot species in the world to regularly spend time above tree line. Nest sites are usually positioned on the ground underneath large beech trees, in rock crevices or dug burrows between roots. They are accessed by tunnels leading back 1 m to 6 m into a larger chamber, which is furnished with lichens, moss, ferns and rotting wood. The laying period starts in July and reaches into January. Two to five white eggs are laid, with an incubation time of around 21 days, and a brooding period of 94 days. An omnivore, the Kea feeds on more than 40 plant species beetle larva, other birds (including shearwater chicks) and mammals (including sheep and rabbits). It has been observed breaking open shearwater nests to feed on the chicks after hearing the chicks in their nests. The Kea is classed as Nationally Endangered in the New Zealand Threat Classification System and Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.

 

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Taken on August 9, 2012