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Kea Birds – Everything You Need to Know

Kea birds

How would you feel if kea birds fearlessly took your gears away or attacked your sheep in the alpine region of New Zealand?

Keas are infamous for their naughty and destructive personality, earning them the title “Clown of the Alps.”

Due to their destructive tendencies, they encountered conflict with human settlers, leading to the death of 150,000 keas. But there’s so much more to Kea parrots than just being mischievous.

In this guide, we’ll introduce you to kea mountain parrot’s world and share their:

  • Intelligence that rivals monkeys and apes
  • logical thinking and incredible talent in using their zygodactyl feet as a tool
  • the reason behind their tendency to eat rubbers
  • and favorite spots if you wish to behold these alpine parrots

We’re also going to reveal why the Keas, the only alpine parrot in the world, prey on sheep!

But before that, here’s a quick overview of the kea alpine parrot’s physical characteristics and distinguishing qualities.

Kea Birds Species Overview

Scientific Name: Nestor notabilis
Size: 46 – 50 cm
Weight: 870 g
Lifespan: 5 to 20 years
Diet: Omnivores
Talking Abilities: Can’t talk or mimic human speech
Habitat:   Mountain forests

Flying Kea Bird

Introducing Kea Birds – The World’s Only Alpine Parrot

Kea birds are large parrots with olive-emerald green edged plumage and a hidden black and bright orange with yellow and black feathers on the underside of their wings. 

You’ll witness the bursting visual treat once they fly, but the orange feathers are also visible in the UV spectrum. 

You may also find royal blue keas with red/orange on the rump or tail feathers. 

Kea parrots are zygodactyl, meaning they have four toes on each foot: two-point forward while the other two points backward. 

This toe structure enables kea birds to manipulate objects and move around quickly. 

Keas’ beak is long and curved, measuring around 4.5-5 cm in males and average at 4-4.5 cm in females. 

They use their beaks to dig grubs from rotten logs and pick roots from the ground. 

New zealand parrot kea's habitat

Origin and Natural Habitat: Where Are Kea Parrots Found?

The kea parrots are native to the South Island of New Zealand’s alpine region. Their favorite nesting spot is the beech forests at sea level on South Island’s West Coast and mountain forests in the Southern Alps.

But they can also be found in the mountains as far east as Kaikoura. 

Talking Abilities – Can a Kea Bird Talk?

The kea mountain parrots are not known as talkers but can produce various sounds. These birds can make a whining sound and squeal depending on the message they want to relay to each other. 

Despite their lack of speaking and mimicking abilities, these birds are clever and have a top-notch level of intelligence. 

Kea Bird’s Intelligence

The Institute of Cognitive Biology in Vienna claims that the New Zealand Kea is the smartest bird in the world, with intelligence comparable to that of a monkey.

Kea Parrots are notorious for their ravenous (and destructive) inquisitiveness on the South Island hiking trails.

Despite their poor behavior, these clever birds are gifted with problem-solving skills and intelligence on par with a four-year-old child. 

They can solve logic puzzles, remove bin lids, and open sliding doors.

One kea even discovered that by bringing a piece of firewood to a trekking hut every day and knocking on the door, it would receive food in return.

Kea alpine parrot personality

Kea Birds’ Personality and Behavior

These curious birds are unafraid of humans. They’re known for their curious and playful behavior. 

Kea Alpine parrots often chase each other in the air and do spiral loops and other tricks. 

But they can be destructive and fearless in annoying people too. Due to their inquisitive nature, they often play with and strip rubbers out of the cars and anything that isn’t bolted or welded down.

They’re also infamous for stealing from tourists day and night and rolling stoners down the metal roof of high country huts. 

But they don’t stop there!

Naughty keas also throw rocks at tourists and break into houses through cat doors, raid garbage, and chew antennas off.

They also like to snatch wallets, passports, and anything they can get with their hooked bill and solid claws and even rip holes in tents.

So the nickname “naughty alpine parrot” is so fitting for them. 

Kea parrot Breeding Behavior

Kea Bird’s Breeding Behavior and Reproduction

Like people, kea parrots form pair bonds consisting of a male and a female and hold a territory or an area where they can live. It measures around 4 square kilometers, and no other kea pairs can live in it. 

But they can share it with their chicks and adult males who may come to visit for a while. 

These birds can breed each year and mate for life. 

Female kea parrots can lay 2 to 5 eggs per year in a burrow deep in the ground, usually under beech tree roots or a large rock outcrop. 

If possums and stoats find the eggs and eat them, the female kea will lay another clutch of eggs if it’s not too late in the season. 

The pair will then cover their nest with feathers, softwood chips, and dry moss and lichen to protect and keep the eggs warm. 

During the female’s egg incubation period in the winter or spring, the male will provide food for her for one month. And when the eggs hatch, the male will look for more food for his chicks, his pair, and himself. 

It can be challenging for them, especially if it’s snowing outside. But the mother will also hunt for food when the chicks are already capable of keeping themselves warm.

Kea mountain parrots’ egg laying season is from July to October, and their eggs hatch out after four weeks. And it will then take 12 weeks before chicks can leave the nest. 

Kea Bird Lifespan

Now we’re down to one of the most exciting questions. How long do keas live for?

Kea parrots in the wild have an average lifespan of 5 years, but those in captivity can live up to 50 years or more. 

However, the oldest known age for a wild kea is 20 years.

One of the factors that shorten their lifespan in the wild is predators. Let’s talk about their common enemies and see how they survive in the wild. 

Kea mountain parrot

Kea Birds Predators and Threats

New Zealand parrot kea is a protected species, but like any other native birds, they also suffer from predator attacks.

Their primary predators are stoats and cats that raid their habitat. Possums threaten kea birds, too, since they disturb their nest and prey on their eggs. 

Since keas nest in holes in the ground, they’re easy to find and attack. 

Many keas also die when they fall into possum traps and poison baits used to control predators. 

Thanks to predator control measures and aerial 1080 treatment, around 70% of kea nests are successful.

Without pest control, the success rate falls to 40%. 

But sadly, some keas die when they accidentally eat 1080 cereal baits. 

Keas are also at a high risk of pest control and accidents involving man-made objects like cars. 

Furthermore, these birds often get tempted to taste lead nails from buildings and flashings because they find them sweet. 

However, it results to lead poisoning killing many kea birds.

Due to their mischievous behavior and tendency to damage property in campsites and car parks, some keas are being shot even if it’s illegal.

Bounty hunting of kea was also common to protect sheep from kea attacks until it was granted complete protection in 1986. 

But why do they attack sheep?

Kea Parrots Preying on Sheep

New Zealand’s alpine parrot had long been inhabiting the South Island when the sheep farmers came into the area.

Rumores of farmers finding their sheep wounded by keas on their sides began to emerge. But it wasn’t proven true until Kea’s nocturnal assault was captured on a video in 1992.

According to scientists, some Kea parrots—but not all—use their long, curved beaks and claws to rip through wool and feed on sheep’s fat from its back.

But why do these birds prey on sheep?

Kea birds tend to eat sheep fat to survive cold climates when they rarely find food. These birds don’t kill the sheep, but there’s a high chance that the sheep will die due to infection caused by the injury.

Common Health Issues of Kea Birds

Kea parrots are generally healthy, but they’re prone to developing Psittacine beak and feather disease (or PBFD) caused by Circovirus that affects many parrots. 

It’s highly contagious that spreads through direct contact with infected birds and their feather, dust, and feces and contaminated nesting materials and roosting holes.

This disease causes long-term immunological suppression and feather and beak abnormalities. 

They’re also susceptible to avian influenza or bird flu and lead poisoning, which causes weakness, lack of appetite, altered mental activity, leg paralysis, and tremors. 

Kea Birds’ Conservation Status

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN), kea parrots are now “endangered.” 

The highest number of deaths is caused by direct human persecution due to their destructive and investigative behavior. 

Many sheep have died due to infections caused by kea attacks, which caused a rift conflict between kea parrots and sheep farmers.  

It resulted in a legal government bounty in the late 1860s, which caused the death of around 150,000 keas. That’s why keas’ population only averages at 5,000 across an area of 3.5 million hectares. 

Kea parrot for sale

Where to Find Kea Parrot For Sale?

You may be wondering where to purchase a mountain parrot kea, but the real question is can you buy one. 

So, Can You Buy a Kea Parrot?

Since they’re nationally endangered, keeping them as pets is illegal. 

You may rarely find a kea parrot pet, but there are some keas purposely kept by organizations that aim to conserve their species. 

Where Can I See a Kea Bird?

Keas are often spotted at South Island ski fields and Mount Aspiring National Park. If you want to see a Kea, here are other top spots you should visit.

Arthur’s Pass

Kea is frequently spotted in the village of Arthur’s Pass at dusk. Avalanche Peak to Scotts Track is a fantastic spot to see kea in their natural habitat, especially along the tree line. Around 8 kilometers west of Arthur’s Pass Village, at the viaduct lookout (also known as Deaths Corner), young keas with yellow rings around their eyes and nose frequently congregate.

You can drive from Christchurch or take the TranzAlpine train to get there.

Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound

Homer Tunnel on New Zealand’s Milford Road is an engineering marvel that provides access to the breathtaking Milford Sound. 

Milford Sound is 18 km (11 mi), and Te Anau is 100 km (62 mi) away from the tunnel. There are roughly 270 km (167 mi) from Queenstown and 390 km (240 mi) from Dunedin (242 mi). 

On state Highway 94, as you approach the Eastern Side of the Tunnel, there is a place where you can stop and snap pictures. And it is here where you can meet one of New Zealand’s endemic kea parrots.

Pros and Cons of Kea Birds

The kea mountain parrots are entertaining feathery creatures. They can delight you with their aerial tricks and quirky acts. On top of that, they’re brilliant and clever birds with excellent problem-solving skills.

There are many more wonders waiting to be discovered about keas’ intelligence. But one thing is for sure: they’re fast learners and easy to train.

But due to their destructive tendencies and naughty personality, some sheep farmers and tourists found them annoying and undesirable.

Pros:

  • Intelligent
  • Funny and quirky
  • Unique feather pattern
  • Hardy birds

Cons:

  • Naughty personality
  • Destructive tendencies
  • Some attack sheep to survive

Flying kea

Frequently Asked Questions About Kea Birds

Is the kea the smartest bird?

According to the Institute of Cognitive Biology in Vienna, New Zealand’s Kea has recently been heralded and enlisted as the world’s smartest bird among the top ten intelligent birds. Its intelligence level is on par with a monkey, and its brain-to-body weight ratio is similar to great apes and cetaceans.

Are kea birds rare?

New Zealand’s remaining kea birds are estimated to be around 3000 to 7000, which explains why this rare species was declared nationally endangered. 

How big is a kea bird?

Alpine parrot kea is a large parrot with a total length of around 46 to 50cm and an average weight of 870 grams.

Do keas sleep at night?

The kea alpine parrot is semi-nocturnal. That explains why they’re lively and active at night, especially during summer. They’re fairly hardy.

Therefore, they can tolerate and withstand varying temperatures. 

Why do keas eat rubber?

Keas are smart enough to know that if traveling humans refuse to give them food, the food may have remained on their vehicle. 

That’s why they try to figure out how to get inside and as they explore, they tend to play with and rip rubber parts. 

What is the difference between kea and a Kaka?

Kaka birds are smaller, and they feature olive-brown plumage with shades of red plus a whitish crown, while keas are olive-emerald green with orange underwings and rump.

Furthermore, New Zealand’s kaka excavates the wood of live trees, but keas don’t. 

Are kea birds extinct?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed kea parrots as an “endangered” species. Therefore, it’s at risk of extinction, but there are still around 5,000 keas today. 

Kea parrot eating

Final Thoughts About Kea Birds

Kea birds are the rising stars in the intelligence department of feathery creatures.

They are clever, quick learners, and innately curious. So, they like to play with and steal stuff from tourists.

If you happen to find them, kindly ensure your car is closed and locked, secure the keys, and close your bags to prevent them from snatching your belongings.

You’re free to take photos of these kea birds as long as you’re not too close to them or holding traffic up.

But avoid feeding them or driving them off when they’re on your car’s roof. Otherwise, keas may fall and break their fragile bones.

By taking these precautionary measures, you’re saving yourself from stress and helping them survive and thrive.

Since kea birds are not suitable as pets, here’s an excellent pet option for you if you want a clever pet bird with the ability to talk.

READ NEXT: African Grey Parrot – Everything You Need to Know About 

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