Female kea feeding its chick in Fiordland
Image: James Reardon | ©

Introduction

The 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: 3,000–7,000 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

Sound recording:

Kea song (MP3, 977K)
01:02 – Kea responding to recordings of their calls.

Species information: Kea on NZ Birds Online

Bird of the year 2017: Forest & Bird

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.

Kea conservation

The New Zealand kea is a protected species. 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 cats are also a major threat when cat populations make incursions into kea habitat. Possums are known to prey on kea and disturb nests although they are not as severe a threat as stoats, and rats have also occasionally been observed preying on kea eggs.

Kea are particularly vulnerable because they nest in holes in the ground that are easy to find and get in to.

Monitoring shows that when predators are controlled with well-timed aerial 1080 treatment and/or traps, about 70% of kea nests are successful. Without pest control, this success rate is about 40%.

Kea research and monitoring

The kea research team has been monitoring nests in areas from South Westland up to Kahurangi National Park and in many places in between. These areas are steep, thickly forested and often snow-covered since kea can begin breeding while there is still snow on the ground, so it is a real challenge to track wild kea, carrying camera equipment and large batteries around.

DOC staff throughout New Zealand are also involved in monitoring trees for signs of heavy seeding. Kea are at risk from predator plagues caused by high levels of seed production ('beech mast'). Battle for our Birds protects kea and other native species from predators.

Results from DOC kea research have led to a better understanding of how to minimise the risk to kea from pest control carried out in kea habitat. There is now a code of practice for aerial 1080 in kea habitat that is followed by all such operations being carried out on Public Conservation Land.

Impacts of human activity

Studies have shown that kea in areas where they are fed regularly are more at risk from pest control and accidents with man-made objects such as cars.

Buildings with lead nails and flashing are also a problem. Lead is attractive to kea because it has a sweet taste to them, and this results in lead poisoning.

The birds' endearing and mischievous behaviour can cause conflict with people, and damage to property especially around campsites and carparks. Although a large number of kea may be watching, it is normally only a few birds which are doing any damage.

Despite being illegal, kea are still being shot. If you are having problems with kea in your area, contact the Kea Conservation Trust for advice and assistance.

Keeping kea safe while controlling predators

Keeping kea safe while controlling predators is a challenge. Kea in some areas have died by 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.

DOC is testing a bird repellent (D-pulegone) on kea in Arthur’s Pass to see if it stops them interacting with cereal bait used in predator control.

The purpose of the trial, funded by DOC and OSPRI (TBfree NZ), is to reduce the risk to kea during aerial 1080 predator control operations.

Keeping kea safe – repellent trial fact sheet 2021 (PDF, 255K)

Repellent trial

D-pulegone is a harmless, peppermint-flavoured food additive, which birds don’t like the smell and taste of. 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.

DOC staff will test the repellent in green, non-toxic cereal baits with kea around Arthur’s Pass village to see if it repels them.

Individual kea will be fitted with coloured leg bands so they can be identified and monitored. This work will take place from December 2021.

Depending on the results, DOC may test another repellent Anthraquinone in brown non-toxic cereal bait, which is typically used as a prefeed in aerial operations. This repellent makes birds feel temporarily sick and puts them off eating cereal bait in the future. It has shown promise in previous trials in South Westland.

The repellent trials at Arthur’s Pass are part of wider research into methods to keep kea safe during predator control. DOC, Ngāi Tahu, Kea Conservation Trust (KCT), ZIP (Zero Invasive Predators) and OSPRI (TBfree NZ) are involved in this work.

Next steps

If the D-pulegone repellent trial with kea is successful, further tests will be done with rats and possums, to check baits remain attractive to these target pests.

All going well, the repellent could be tested in a predator control operation in 2022. Kea would be monitored through the operation to gauge if the repellent works. The effectiveness of the operation on pests would also be measured.

The repellent trials will contribute to the science that underpins kea conservation work.

You can help

Report sightings

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.

Remove temptation

  • 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-poisonous 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.

Emergency hotline

Call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) immediately if you see anyone catching, harming or killing native wildlife.

On your property

  • Trap on your property.
  • Keep your cat in at night.

In your community

  • Find and volunteer with your local community group 
  • Trap in your community
  • Get kids or schools involved

See Predator Free 2050 Trust - get involved for information.

Visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes

  • Check for pests when visiting pest-free islands.
  • Leave nesting birds alone.
  • Use available access ways to get to the beach. 
  • Avoid leaving old fishing lines on beaches or in the sea.
  • Follow the water care code and local navigation bylaws.
  • Do not drive on riverbeds, or keep to formed tracks if you have to.

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.

Specific ways to keep wildlife safe while with your dog on beaches.

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