Native to New Zealand, keas, the world’s only alpine parrots, are unique in many ways. They’re cheeky, remarkably intelligent, and playful.
While some natives love them, others view them as pests. Sadly, these beautiful and smart birds are now considered endangered, with only several thousand still flying across the kiwi skies. In September 2017, the Department of Conservation estimated their population to be 3,000–7,000.
Referred to as the “clown of the mountain,” these remarkable birds display a level of intelligence previously seen only in humans. Research published in March 2020 in Nature of Communications has shown them being able to mix together two sources of information before making a decision. “That’s something humans are very, very good at,” said comparative psychologist Amalia Bastos, the lead author of the study, according to ABC Science.
The keas are curious birds and live in harsh environments with very little food around and thus have developed individual skills for survival. “That means that they’re very explorative … they love new things,” Bastos explained. “Their core motto in life is to stick their beaks into things and see if it breaks, that’s how they find food.”
The research further showed that they laid out three different tasks for these smart birds to see if they could understand probability, and they noticed that the kea did show the ability of problem solving. However, Gisela Kaplan, professor of animal behavior from the University of New England, wasn’t surprised by this. She said, “They’ve been shown in a number of tests that they’re very quick to solve problems.”
The kea is not just known for its intelligence but is also known to show compassion toward members of its own species. “Out of that kind of group living has evolved a sense of caring for each other … even to the point of defending and consoling each other,” added Kaplan.
Another interesting trait of the kea is its ability to spread emotions, such as the desire to play. A research team led by Raoul Schwing from the Messerli Research Institute found that “In many instances, […] the kea were immediately animated to play, but not by joining ongoing play already happening,” Schwing told National Geographic. “Instead, they spontaneously started to play with the bird next to them, or played solitarily in the air or with an object.”
The kea, which is olive-green in color, has a brilliant orange color beneath its wings, and is said to be about 48 centimeters (19 inches) in length, was named the “Bird of the year” in 2017 in New Zealand.
Some believe that it is the inquisitive nature of the bird that could be one of the causes of its decline. “One of the most interesting things about kea is they are one of the few wild species that seek out humans,” Tamsin Orr-Walker, chair of the Kea Conservation Trust, told the Guardian. “That is really rare, and it is that inquisitive nature that is getting them into trouble because a lot of the ways humans interact with them is endangering their survival.”
According to an article published in North and South, New Zealand’s monthly current affairs magazine, farmers considered the kea as villains because they attacked sheep; thus, the government put a bounty on the kea for a century. More than 150,000 keas were shot before this bounty was removed, and they were protected in 1986. However, in the last 20 years, reports indicate that their number has declined, with their risk status raised from vulnerable to endangered.
In November 2019, a Kea Summit was held at Te Ānau, a town in South Island of New Zealand, with the aim to bring people from the country and beyond to discuss present current knowledge on kea status, threats, and conservation measures. Various speakers outlined the cause of their decline. Some reasons included lead poisoning from eating building material, being hit by cars in tourist areas, many people still shooting them because they are considered a nuisance, and predators such as stoats and feral cats.
However, according to North and South magazine, there has been some positive news for those who are working hard to save these intelligent birds, which is the return of the kea to the Kepler Track, a sign they’re recovering in parts of Fiordland.