AUCKLAND—The world's smartest parrot, New Zealand's notoriously cheeky kea, is edging closer to extinction, according to conservationists who warn the species is under "severe stress".
The unique alpine bird, found only in the country's cool South Island, is in population decline, with the Kea Conservation Trust fearing there could be as few as 1,000 left in the wild.
This is a major drop on previous studies from the 1990s that estimated up to 15,000 birds remained.
"We've revised this down to between 1,000 and 5,000 now, which shows these special birds are under more serious threat than we thought," said trust chairwoman Tamsin Orr-Walker.
"This indicates the population is under some severe stress, which is worrying to say the least."
The biggest threats to the population appear to be possums and 1080, a poison used widely in New Zealand to control them, as well as lead poisoning from keas ingesting nail heads and flashings on ski lodges and chalets.
"Lead wouldn't bother most birds but you have to remember the kea is very inquisitive. They get into everything with their beaks, so these product do them a lot of damage," Ms Orr-Walker said.
The kea -- large, green and extremely curious -- is a common sight in tourist spots across the Southern Alps mountain range, not shy of people and apt to explore everything, including windscreen wipers on parked rental cars.
"It's the flocks of teenage boys that are generally the real trouble makers, flying around, sliding down people's roofs, throwing stones at windows and making a nuisance of themselves," she said.
Studies by the Institute of Cognitive Biology in Vienna concluded the kea was the most intelligent bird alive, with an intellect to rival primates.
But it was this colourful personality and their habit of attacking sheep that put them out of favour with settlers and led to a century-long bounty on their head which only ended in 1971.
They were afforded full protection in 1986, but Ms Orr-Walker says it has taken longer to change attitudes towards them.
"People are really starting to appreciate their great personalities, and how smart they are and like humans," she said.
"But we're still hearing of dead birds, stapled to signs or found in plastic bags by the side of the road, so there's still a long way to go."