IntroductionThe endangered kea is one of the most intelligent birds in the world. This unique problem-solving parrot was crowned Bird of the Year in 2017.
Population: 1,000–5,000 estimated
New Zealand status: Endemic
Conservation status: Threatened–Nationally Endangered
Found in: Alpine and forested environments of the South Island
Threats: Predation, human impacts including lead poisoning, deliberate killing, and accidents with man-made items such as cars
Kea song (MP3, 977K)
01:02 – Kea responding to recordings of their calls.
Did you know?
- A kea learnt to turn on the water tap at Aspiring Hut campground.
- A kea locked a mountaineer inside the toilet at Mueller Hut.
- A kea learnt to use tools to set off stoat traps to get the eggs.
- A kea was seen having a tug-of-war with a cat over a rabbit carcass.
- A kea that was being attacked by magpies hid behind a tramper who fended them off.
The kea is a protected species that lives in forests and mountainous areas across the South Island from Golden Bay to Fiordland.
This native parrot is a taonga for Ngāi Tahu and Ngā iwi o Te Tauihu (northern South Island iwi) and valued by New Zealanders as an icon of the outdoors.
Like many other native birds, kea suffer from predation by introduced mammals. Kea are also impacted by human activity.
Introduced predators kill kea
Stoats are the primary predators of kea, and feral cats are also a major threat, particularly in eastern South Island areas where cat populations make incursions into kea habitat. Possums are known to prey on kea and disturb nests, and rats have also occasionally been observed preying on kea eggs.
Kea are particularly vulnerable because they nest in cavities on the ground that are easy to find and get into. They also spend lots of time on the ground exploring and foraging for food, which puts them at risk.
Monitoring shows that when predators are controlled with well-timed aerial 1080 treatment and/or traps, about 70% of kea nests are successful, producing at least one chick. Without pest control, this success rate is about 40% but drops to 10% or less after a forest mast (seeding) causes rat and stoat numbers to soar. More juvenile and adult kea also survive with predator control.
Impacts of human activity
Studies have shown that kea are at more risk of eating 1080 baits during predator control operations in areas where they are fed or able to scavenge human food. These behaviours also increase accidents with cars where kea are attracted to roadside areas.
Buildings with lead nails and flashing are also a problem. Lead is attractive to kea because it is soft to chew and has a sweet taste to them, and this can result in lead poisoning.
The bird's inquisitive and explorative behaviour can cause conflict with people, and damage to property especially around campsites and carparks.
Despite being illegal, kea are still being shot. If you are having problems with kea in your area, contact your local DOC office or the Kea Conservation Trust for advice and assistance.
DOC is working in partnership with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu on a Kea Recovery Programme, in which the Kea Conservation Trust is also involved. The programme draws on both mātauranga Māori and science in its approach to kea conservation, with the goal of increasing kea numbers and securing the survival of this smart and tenacious taonga species into the future.
The Kea Recovery Programme has three key strands. The first is to build on knowledge of kea populations and ecology. Secondly, to manage the top threats to kea, which are from introduced predators and lead poisoning. And thirdly, to avoid harmful human-kea interactions.
The key focus for kea research over the past decade or more has been on the effects of predator control on kea nesting success and the unintended risk to kea from predator control using 1080.
Results from DOC kea research have led to a better understanding of how to minimise the risk to kea from predator control carried out in kea habitat. There is now a code of practice for aerial 1080 in kea habitat which must followed by all such operations carried out on public conservation land.
Other research is giving new insights into the impact of predators. A recent study on kea living east of Arthur’s Pass and Lewis Pass has shown high rates of adult kea being preyed upon outside the breeding season – half killed by feral cats and half by stoats. While plans are in place for trapping feral cats, there are few tools yet available for controlling them over large areas.
Keeping kea safe while controlling predators
While predator control using 1080 benefits kea populations, kea are also at risk of eating 1080 cereal baits. Research has shown kea are at greater risk from 1080 where they regularly interact with people and human food in places like Arthur’s Pass and Franz Josef as this likely reduces their natural caution.
Research trials underway in 2022 aim to test the use of bird repellents to reduce the risk to kea of eating 1080 bait and increase the overall benefits from predator control.
The trials have been co-designed with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu (TRONT), OSPRI, ZIP (Zero Invasive Species) and the Kea Conservation Trust and build on previous research.
Two repellents are being tested in field trials around Arthur’s Pass.
D-pulegone, a peppermint food additive that repels birds, is being tested with kea to see if it stops them interacting with bait used in predator control.
Previous trials using this repellent with kea have shown promise, but it evaporated too quickly from the cereal bait to be effective. A new method is being tested using tiny capsules of repellent in the bait.
Next steps will be testing the repellent baits with rats and possums (to check it doesn’t affect their interest in the baits) and possible field trials in 2023.
Another repellent, anthraquinone, is being tested in two predator control operations west of Arthur’s Pass in 2022.
This repellent makes birds feel unwell when eaten and is being used in non-toxic bait ahead of the operations to see if kea can be ‘trained’ to avoid 1080 bait.
Results of these trials will inform further research and best practice guidelines for use of 1080 in kea habitat – both aimed at making predator control safer for kea.
You can help
Become a kea surveyor!
If you are a regular backcountry user, then start recording the presence and absence of kea on your trips.
Report sightings on the Kea Database website or to the nearest DOC office.
Useful details to note include: where you saw it, what date and time you saw it, the band colour combination or numbers if the kea is banded, and what the kea was doing. Photos are especially useful.
- Never feed kea. Feeding kea is harmful to them.
- Where kea are present, avoid leaving temptations around such as loose clothing and boots, packs, food and brightly coloured objects.
- Replace lead nails and flashing on buildings with non-toxic alternatives.
Support the Kea Conservation Trust
The Kea Conservation Trust works with others to research and raise awareness of kea and the issues impacting them. The trust is a valuable source of information from scientific papers to educational material.
Call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) immediately if you see anyone catching, harming or killing native wildlife.
On your property
- Trap predators on your property.
- Be a responsible cat owner.
In your community
- Find and volunteer with your local community group
- Trap predators in your community
- Get kids or schools involved
See Predator Free 2050 Trust - get involved for information.
Visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
- Leave nesting birds alone.
- Use available access ways to get to the beach.
- Avoid leaving old fishing lines in the water.
- Follow the water care code and local navigation bylaws.
- Do not drive on riverbeds, or keep to formed tracks if you have to.
- Check for pests if visiting pest-free islands.
With your dog
- Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep them under control.
- If you come across wildlife put your dog on a lead and lead it away.
- Warn other dog owners at the location.
- Notify DOC if you see wildlife being harassed by people or dogs.
- Get your dog trained in avian awareness.
- Learn about the Lead the Way programme which encourages dog owners to become wildlife wise and know how to act to protect coastal wildlife.