Threat status: At risk
Found in: Alpine environments of the South Island
Did you know: The world’s only alpine parrot, the kea is renowned for its intelligent and inquisitive nature. Kea nest on the ground, and monitoring indicates up to 60% of nests can be attacked by predators during breeding.
Kea is at risk from a predator plague caused by high levels of seed production ('beech mast') in 2014. Battle for our Birds protects kea and other native species from predators.
Protecting Our Place
As part of the Protecting Our Place partnership with DOC, Dulux New Zealand is contributing $50,000 annually from 2013 towards the Kea Conservation Trust's nest monitoring programme. In addition to that funding any funds raised through the consumer donation programmes will go to the Trust.
Dulux's involvement in the programme means the Trusts’ nest monitoring programme can grow and extend further in addition to the existing monitoring sites in the Nelson Lakes area.
Facts about kea
Kea (Nestor notabilis) are an endemic parrot of the South Island's high country. Although they are seen in reasonable numbers throughout the South Island, the size of the wild population is unknown - but is estimated at between 1,000 and 5,000 birds.
If you are a frequent visitor to or live in an alpine environment you will know the kea well. Raucous cries of "keeaa" often give away the presence of these highly social and inquisitive birds. However, their endearing and mischievous behaviour can cause conflict with people.
Kea grow up to 50 cm long and although mostly vegetarian, also enjoy grubs and insects.
The kea is related to the forest kaka (Nestor meridionalis) and is thought to have developed its own special characteristics during the last great ice age by using its unusual powers of curiosity in its search for food in a harsh landscape.
Nests are usually found among boulders in high altitude forest where the birds lay between two and four eggs during the breeding season from July and January.
Listen to or download a recording of kea song.
Kea song (MP3, 977K)
1 minute 2 second recording of kea responding to recordings of their calls.
All bird song recordings
Human development in the alpine zone has reduced the sources of natural foods available to kea and they find our fat-laden human foods inviting. However, human foods encourage kea to come into closer contact with humans, often resulting in mischievous behaviour. Feeding young kea also discourages them from looking for and learning about natural foods, and it can make them dependent on human scraps.
Kea, like many other native birds, have suffered from predation by cats, stoats, ferrets and possums. Keas are particularly vulnerable to predation because they nest in holes in the ground that are easy to find and easy to get in to.
Stoats and possums eat kea
Evidence shows possums are eating kea. Researchers using nest-cameras have for the first time witnessed the gruesome reality inside defenceless kea nests invaded by stoats and possums in South Westland. Find out more about possums eating kea.
Large numbers of kea nests are failing in the wild and these nest-cameras have finally been able to reveal what’s going on. At a monitored site in South Westland, midway through the 2010 breeding season, researchers discovered three out of 11 nests under surveillance had been devastated by stoats and possums, with a loss of six chicks.
Possum caught eating a young kea in Ōkārito Forest
Possums have previously been filmed killing an adult kaka but until now we were completely unaware of their direct impact on kea nests. This constitutes a huge risk to our lowland populations as nearly all of our nests are being visited by possums.
Prolonged stoat attack on kea chicks
The research has also shown how long it takes chicks to die during a prolonged attack by stoats. One attack lasted two and a half hours with the stoat remaining in the recesses of the nest hole and repeating its assault on the two dying chicks.
One chick died at the end of the torment but the other lived for 40-hours with its injuries before disappearing. The mother was also injured.
Work of kea research team
The kea research team is monitoring nests in the Ōkarito Forest and in the area from the Copland Valley to the Paringa River, south of Fox Glacier. These areas are steep and thickly forested making it difficult to track wild kea and carry camera equipment and large batteries around in.
The research team are also monitoring trees for signs of excessive fruiting which would trigger a chain of events starting with a rat plague and ending with a plague of stoats.
Minimising the risk of 1080 to kea
The kea research programme has adopted 1080 pest control methods to benefit kea populations in New Zealand's South Island. The project is studying nesting success, and researching operational methods that provide the least risk and most benefit to kea.
Possums, stoats and rats all destroy kea nests. New Zealand is one of the few countries where biodegradable 1080 poison can be used to control these pests.
Read more about possums and stoats.
In past decades there has been increasing human activity in alpine environments. Associated with this activity is the food scraps that accompany people. For kea, our food sources have become a welcome high energy food source and groups of kea frequent public sites around Fiordland like Milford Road carparks and at Milford Sound.
However, because these kea do not have to spend a large amount of time foraging for low energy natural foods, they have plenty of spare time to explore the many and varied new objects placed in their environment by people. Juvenile male birds seem to make up the majority of these loitering groups.
This exploration by kea has resulted in damage to property, especially around camping grounds and in carparks. Although a large number of kea may be watching, it is normally only a few mischievous birds which are doing any damage. A key to solving kea mischievousness is to remove all artificial food sources form their environment.
This means resisting the temptation to feed kea. The Department of Conservation is banding kea to help identify problem birds. Another reason why it is important not to feed keas is that a kea's natural food is mainly plant material such as berries, roots, shoots and insect larvae. Eating human food is as bad for keas as living on a daily diet of junk food would be for humans.
Feeding young kea also discourages them from looking for and learning about natural foods. They can become dependent on human scraps.
Review of captive management of kea (PDF, 108K)
Defining the parameters for a sustainable, advocacy-directed captive population of kea (PDF, 1420K)
You can help
Help from the public is important to identify banded birds. If you see a banded bird note what it was doing (including any damage it was doing - if any) and report the band colour combination or numbers to the nearest Department of Conservation office.
Do not feed kea.
By removing temptations from kea, at human haunts, like boots, packs, food, car window wipers and brightly coloured objects, you can help minimise contact with kea and help to keep this alpine character wild.
Donate through Dulux
As part of the Protecting Our Place partnership with DOC, Dulux New Zealand is running a fundraising campaign as part of their 2013 spring promotion to support the Kea Conservation Trust’s nest monitoring programme. Donate to the programme by purchasing specially marked Dulux pails from selected retailers. Check out the Protecting our Place website for more details.
Kea Conservation Trust
Visit the Kea Conservation Trust website to find out how you can become a member, sponsor, volunteer or donate to help contribute to kea conservation.