26 Jan 2018

Why a "junk food" diet is killing off the Kea

The forested mountains of New Zealand’s South Island are home to a famously mischievous alpine parrot. But human conflict, deliberate feeding and the deadly threat of invasive mammals is driving the species’ decline. This year, it was uplisted from Vulnerable to Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

 Junk food is no good for the Kea © Pavlina Trauskeova/ Shutterstock
Junk food is no good for the Kea © Pavlina Trauskeova/ Shutterstock
By GrrlScientist

“GrrlScientist” is the pseudonym of an evolutionary ecologist/ornithologist and parrot researcher. She is a science writer/journalist at Forbes and for the non-profit Think Tank, The Evolution Institute, and a podcast writer for the non-profit BirdNote Radio. Formerly: The Guardian (UK). She has over 24,000 followers on Twitter: @GrrlScientist


Drive through Arthur’s Pass and you’ll likely see a Kea Nestor notabilis. Or maybe a Kea will see you first. As this personable parrot confidently ambles towards you and starts trying to jump into your car boot, you’d be forgiven for thinking these birds aren’t threatened at all. But their fondness for people makes them appear far more common than they really are: introduced predators, incidences of human-Kea conflict, vehicle collisions and lead poisoning are all contributing to their population decline, and thus BirdLife has now uplisted Kea from Vulnerable to Endangered on the Red List. It is hoped that acknowledgement of its increased extinction risk will encourage authorities to ramp up ongoing conservation efforts, because people urgently need to stop feeding these inquisitive birds.

Tourists feeding these tame birds gives them a taste to try anything… including poison

Like many New Zealand birds, Kea suffer huge losses to invasive predators. Interestingly, human contact is linked to this problem, as well as causing other major issues for Kea: locals and (mainly) tourists feeding these tame birds gives them a taste to try anything…including poison. “If we didn’t have ‘junk food Kea’—populations fed by people—we would be able to protect all Kea with aerial poisoning operations aimed at introduced rats, stoats and possums,” says Kevin Hackwell, Chief Conservation Advisor for Forest & Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand).

The decision to uplist the Kea comes on the heels of one of this parrot’s most successful publicity campaigns. Only a few weeks ago, the Kea was officially recognised as New Zealand’s “Bird of the Year” for 2017 after a fierce campaign where more than 50,000 votes were cast. This competition, which is run by Forest & Bird, is intended to raise the profile of New Zealand’s endangered birds in the minds of the public and media. The Kea’s victory is a startling contrast from years past: until 1971, the New Zealand government paid a bounty for Kea bills, which resulted in more than 150,000 of these iconic parrots being killed, mostly by sheep farmers. Kea, which are omnivorous parrots with a taste for carrion, were suspected of attacking or killing sheep.

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Road collisions are a threat to Kea © Mark Hurrell


The current state of decline is a sad legacy from that earlier eradication program, which very nearly wiped them off the face of the Earth. We estimate that there are now only 6,000 individuals alive today, roughly 4,000 of which are mature. The rugged mountain terrain of New Zealand’s Southern Alps where these parrots persist, combined with the Kea’s low population density, makes it difficult to accurately assess their numbers, but regardless, it is clear that Kea numbers are still decreasing.

When stoat populations explode, they decimate Kea nests, reducing survival to near zero

After people stopped legally killing Kea, other threats became more obvious. Because Kea evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, they have not developed defences against them, and nowhere is this more conspicuous than when it comes to nesting. Unlike most parrots, which nest in cavities high up in trees, Kea nest in burrows, tucked under rocks or tree roots, which makes the incubating female, her eggs and chicks especially vulnerable to predation by introduced stoats. When stoat populations periodically explode, they decimate Kea nests, reducing survival to near zero. Other predators, particularly possums, introduced rats and feral cats, add more casualties.

The Kea is a large, handsome, olive-green parrot with a long tail, blue-grey flight feathers on its upper wings and orange-red patches underneath. It has an exceptionally long, downwardly-curved upper bill that it uses as a powerful all-purpose tool. Juvenile Kea can be distinguished from adults by the yellow colouring around their dark eyes and at the base of the beak. Although attractive, Kea are one of the few parrot species that have not been exploited by the pet trade — but people are still responsible for their declining numbers. Kea are perhaps unique amongst endangered wildlife because they actively seek human contact, but this can create direct conflict with their human neighbours.


Juvenile Kea (Left) with adult (Right) © Herb Christophers


Like human scientists, Kea use their intellect and their powerful beaks to learn about the world by systematically dismantling parts of it. Innate curiosity shouldn’t be the fault of the Kea, despite the “troublemaker” public perception wrongly perpetuated by some. Nevertheless, Kea do become famous for destroying stuff — bicycles, cars, and even houses become fair game.


Kea have even been caught on camera redirecting traffic by moving traffic cones. With road collisions such a great threat, some might say they're taking matters into their own hands...


But despite Kea killing being a crime that can get an offender a $15,000-$100,000 fine and up to two years’ imprisonment under the Wildlife Act, not everyone seems to have gotten the message: for example, last September a man from Nelson was convicted of shooting and killing a Kea he claimed was trashing his property, although he was only sentenced to community service. Some Kea deaths result from accidents. Juvenile Kea especially enjoy loitering at popular ski areas, such as Arthur’s Pass, where they are infamous for removing rubber bits from automobiles and bicycles, raiding rubbish bins, feasting on discarded food, and being fed by skiers and tourists  — earning these roving gangs the nickname “junk food Kea”.

One juvenile Kea was spotted rolling a snowball across a snow-covered road at Arthur’s Pass

Their attraction to humans makes them vulnerable to being killed by speeding vehicles and to electrocution by power lines at ski resorts. But these “larrikins” (positive New Zealand slang for a cheeky teenager) also manage to invent trouble when none seems readily available. For example, one juvenile Kea was spotted rolling a snowball across a snow-covered road at Arthur’s Pass — an amusing but potentially tragic situation.


People need to follow the rules © keaconservation.co.nz


Addressing human-Kea conflicts can be an ongoing challenge, even for the most proactive communities. Thus, education and conflict resolution efforts within affected communities are essential to support conservation efforts, and they require local insight as well as sensitivity. But this is not an unattainable goal: people and Kea can co-exist peacefully in communities that have been carefully designed for this purpose.

It’s happening for the serious threat of lead poisoning. Lead-head nails and lead flashing on corrugated roofing are common in huts and other buildings throughout the mountainous backcountry where curious Kea reside. Lead bullets used in hunting are also dangerous to Kea scavenging on carrion. A survey of Kea suggested that lead exposure is pervasive and is a contributing factor to their ongoing decline. Fortuntely, an abatement effort is underway to remove lead from schools, houses and other structures in key areas, and follow-up surveys of Kea blood lead levels here are planned to see how effective this programme has been.

There are several programmes in place to help Kea recover from their perilous state, starting with the largest threat: predator control. To reduce predator numbers, the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) implemented a pest-control programme in vital Kea nesting areas. This was motivated by a study that found only 2% of DOC-monitored Kea nests were successful between from 2009 through 2014 in areas without pest control. In 2015, aerial applications of the biodegradable metabolic poison, 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate), were started and the DOC saw Kea nest success increase to 27%.

One of our greatest conservation challenges is to stop tourists and others from feeding Kea

But in a cruel twist of fate, and because of their inquisitive nature, the 1080 programme also caused accidental poisonings of some Kea. These accidental poisonings were a very visible, but localised, problem. Kea populations that do not interact regularly with people showed significant benefit from aerial poisoning operations to control introduced predators, whereas “junk food Kea” showed no benefit. “Despite advice to the contrary, many tourists, and some locals, still feed the Kea, which encourages them to try novel food”, said Hackwell.“These Kea are therefore particularly susceptible to eating the poison baits that are meant to control introduced rats, stoats, possums and feral cats”, said Hackwell, adding: “For this reason one of our greatest conservation challenges is to stop tourists and others from feeding Kea."


This story is part of the Red List 2017 bird update - click for more