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September 2016 Issue
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Mischief in the mountains

Kea are a stunning sight, but their curiosity is killing them. Photo: Danilo Hegg

Once considered a pest to be eradicated, kea are now nationally endangered. Meghan Walker finds out how conservationists are taking steps to save the inquisitive alpine parrot

Kea are cheeky.

They break into your car, nibble away at your tires, and rip the rubber seals from car door frames.

Leave your backpack in a vulnerable spot, and it’ll become a new toy to shred to pieces.

The beloved yet brazen alpine parrot may seem to be in abundance – found dancing atop nearly every parked car in many South Island recreation areas – but in reality, kea numbers are decreasing.

Kea, or Nestor notabilis, is endemic to the Southern Alps of New Zealand and is the world’s only mountain parrot. There are less than 5000 keas left in the wild – they were added to the Department of Conservation’s Nationally Threatened Species list in 2012.

The alpine bird has always had a habit of irking its human neighbours. There was once a bounty for kea because they tormented high-country sheep as far back as the 1860s.

The bounty only ended in the 1970s, after more than 100 years of regular kea culling on farms and mountain communities. After the bounty ended, kea gained partial protection, with full protection granted in the 1980s. But even now, decades later, kea are still occasionally killed by irritated members of the public.

Bruce Robertson, a professor from the University of Otago’s  zoology department, said the public’s misconception of the kea population is detrimental to conservation efforts.

“They’re quite obvious – you see them in ski field car parks, and they’re often in large numbers. So people get this impression that there are a lot of kea around,” Robertson explains, saying that the majority of those active, curious birds you’ll see dancing on rooftops tend to be juveniles.

“They’re attracted to those locations because it’s exciting for them and they’ve got things to chew on. They’re quite smart, and need a lot of stimulation.”

But head into the backcountry, and it’s a different scene altogether.

“Away from those public areas, you’ll hardly ever hear a kea. It’s quite unusual to come across large flocks of kea out and about.”

And then there’s their chronic bad reputation.

“They occasionally do things that people don’t like. They will chew your car, and damage other things that are left out. And they’ll also attack livestock, which is not that common, but it’s one thing that resulted in a major decline [of kea] during the bounty system when they were eradicated in a lot of areas,” Robertson says.

Driven by an effort to save high-country sheep, the bounty system was set on eradicating kea. Kea strikes, or attacks on sheep, were plaguing farmers so much that they killed them off in devastating numbers. According to the Kea Conservation Trust, an estimated 150,000 kea were killed during the 100 years of culling.

The end of the bounty system didn’t mean the end of kea strikes, however. Massey University PhD student Clio Reid has been studying kea strikes on high-country sheep for several years, and has found that high country farmers are still losing sheep to hungry kea.

Two kea shot to death in Arthur's Pass National Park. Photo: Kea Conservation Trust

Two kea shot to death in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Photo: Kea Conservation Trust

Kea’s draw to sheep is likely a behaviour preexisting from when they used to eat moa, according to Reid. There’s paleontological evidence that kea used to scavenge on dead moa. “Haast eagles would kill the moa, or the moa would get stuck in bogs, and the kea would come along and have a munch,” Reid explains.

Even though there was a gap between when moa lived and when sheep were introduced, Reid says that the “behavioural flexibility” means kea were naturally drawn to munching on sheep. Her theory is that it’s the older, adult males who are most often attacking sheep.

“They could be breeding males, supplying the female and nestlings with food, and sheep would be a great way to do that because it’s a source of fat and high-energy food,” she says.

That munching can be devastating for farmers, whose sheep are at risk of blood poisoning or infection from their kea-inflicted injuries.

Reid studied five farms near Queenstown, evaluating kea-strike injuries in high country sheep and interviewing farmers.

One farmer’s losses were particularly high: Reid says he loses 400 sheep a year to kea strikes, an equivalent of $20,000 lost in yearly revenue. Other farms reported little to no losses.

“It can come down to terrain, or husbandry practices. If you’re moving your sheep around frequently during the winter so they’re not getting stuck in the snow, and you’re keeping an eye on them, then that makes a big difference,” Reid says.

Reid’s research also involved behavioural studies in controlled environments, because it’s tough to measure actual attacks on sheep. “It usually happens in the middle of the night, in the middle of the winter, in the middle of the mountains.”

So Reid set up a series of experiments at Arthur’s Pass. She set out novel objects such as dog toys – one was a wooden square with a ball attached – designed to reveal               personality traits of kea and how explorative they are. She also designed a puzzle box to study their innovative problem-solving abilities.

Reid even created a fake mechanical sheep, which she describes as more like a “Dr Who monster-machine” than an actual sheep. “It has some pulley cables on it, and some fun-fur, just to see how the kea respond to roughly similar stimuli they would get from jumping on a sheep.

“When they jumped on it, I would pull the cable and it would buck, sort of like a real sheep. It had a little food reward underneath the fur, and they’d have to find that,” Reid explains.

Observing their behaviour as they bucked and bounced on the back of the mechanical sheep, she found they weren’t swayed by the wild ride.

“It was an interesting behavioural switch. It went from sort of tentative, to investigative, to, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s food here! This is the best thing ever!’ And then they were suddenly expert rodeo-riders.”

Reid says that once they knew there was food, they wouldn’t give up. That was helpful for her research, because she said that often it seems like the kea are just checking the sheep out. “But then maybe they’re playing with the sheep because they’re getting a response out of them. And then they discover that they can actually eat them,” and then it’s game-over for the sheep.

The experiments help Reid understand the behavioural drivers behind kea strike. “I’m investigating whether there’s a link between how individual kea perform in the three different tasks – for example, if a kea that is highly explorative and good at innovative problem-solving also engages readily with the [mechanical] sheep and successfully finds the food reward.”

Even though it must be an infuriating situation for the sheep farmers, Reid says she’s found that most farmers aren’t grabbing their rifles; rather, they’re asking for help from researchers, the Kea Conservation Trust, and DOC.

There are a few methods to alleviate the problem for farmers. One option is to spray sheep with a kea repellant, which farmers have to apply every six weeks or so.

Another option is to continuously move sheep to different parts of the farm, and to keep them below 700m. Shearing helps too; shorn sheep are less likely to be attacked, because kea often hang onto the wool while attacking the sheep.

Vaccines for sheep are also alleviating the problem. Kea strikes, even relatively minor attacks, have the potential to be fatal to the sheep due to blood poisoning or disease from the scratches or puncture wounds. But with vaccines, sheep can be attacked by kea and have a higher chance of survival.

Reid says she hopes her research helps provide some deeper understanding of not only kea behaviour, but also ways to help farmers co-exist peacefully with the bird.

Kea are notorious for picking apart stray backpacks. Photo: Danilo Hegg

Kea are notorious for picking apart stray backpacks. Photo: Danilo Hegg

It may seem a losing battle for kea, as their cheekiness continues to earn them mixed support from their human neighbours.

“A lot of negative perceptions have continued,” says Tamsin Orr-Walker founder of the Kea Conservation Trust. “There’s still a lot of conflict. We still get people thinking kea are pests and a nuisance, and also people thinking that the kea numbers are high – which they aren’t.”

The trust is out to change those perceptions. They’ve recently finished a ‘Kea Revolution’ tour around a dozen communities in the South Island, spreading information about the threats to kea populations and letting people know what they can do to help.

“When we can get people to think positively about them and recognise the threats that they’re under, then we can get people to take action, whether that be increasing awareness in their local communities, getting people involved in pest control to protect vulnerable nests, or to help with our surveys,” Orr-Walker explains.

“Kea curiosity, which of course has been vital for them to survive in an extreme environment, also has put them into conflict with people in the past, and continues to do so,” Orr-Walker says, adding that she’d recently heard about a kea being shot in Haast.

Orr-Walker estimates that about four kea are intentionally killed by people each year, which is why she is adamant that public perception and human behaviour need to change in order for communities and the parrot to live in harmony.

She points to Arthur’s Pass as a great example of a community and the parrot successfully co-existing, They’ve ‘kea-proofed’ their properties by removing exposed wires, hiding their rubbish bins, and not feeding the birds.

“As soon as you start feeding kea, it encourages them to come around, especially the juveniles. It’s the flocking juveniles which come in the winter that cause the most problems,” Orr-Walker says. “Really it’s just a case of people changing their behaviour.”

While human interference does threaten kea populations, the biggest threat are predators, with stoats, possums, and feral cats being among the chief offenders. Rats are another pest, as they often steal eggs from nesting sites.

The trust has been video-monitoring kea nesting sites since 2009, which provides helpful data on predation. Orr-Walker said that of all the nests they’ve monitored, about two-thirds are predated on, meaning those chicks never manage to fledge.

“What people tend to say is, ‘Oh, there were kea here, but now we’re not seeing them.’ What’s happening is we’re getting an aging population out there,” she explains.

There are many breeding pairs, which will stay together for life – kea often live into their 30s in the wild. However, if their chicks can’t survive, or the breeding pair becomes too old to reproduce, the population shrinks.

“You’ll have birds that are present for 20 or 30 years, but then they die, and you have no young to take their place,” Orr-Walker says.

Also posing a reproduction challenge is that there are fewer females than males; because they’re ground-nesting breeders, females are more vulnerable to predators than males.

Lead poisoning is another challenge for kea.

“Everywhere that humans and kea     crossover – huts, baches, high-country sheep stations, old gold mining areas – they all have lead nail heads, and kea in those areas have had detectable lead levels in their blood, some with very high levels,” Orr-Walker says.

In 2006, DOC tested lead levels in 43 kea in Mt Cook, and 32 were found to have very high lead levels. All had some lead detectable in their blood.

Lead is bad for a number of reasons: it interferes with reproduction and cognitive abilities, which leaves some birds unable to find food, resulting in starvation in a few cases. In fact, starvation was the leading cause of kea death in the 1960s. While lead poisoning wasn’t known to have such effects then, Orr-Walker attributes those starvations to the prevalence of lead in building materials.

Tamsin Orr-Walker and the Kea Conservation Trust actively study female kea and monitor nests in Mt Aspiring National Park. Photo: Supplied

Tamsin Orr-Walker and the Kea Conservation Trust actively study female kea and monitor nests in Mt Aspiring National Park. Photo: Supplied

In order to diminish lead dangers, DOC has been replacing the lead in alpine huts. A reduction in lead shot has also alleviated the problem, but Orr-Walker says there’s more to be done to mitigate the hazard, adding that it requires a cultural and behavioural shift.

“Getting communities to actually recognise there’s a problem and to help take action is hugely important,” she says. “Pretty much everything that’s threatening kea is being brought in by humans or activities associated with humans.

“We’re seeing people much more aware of the fact that kea are threatened and much more motivated to actually get involved,” Orr-Walker says. “Particularly people who are out in the mountains all the time; they actually see the possibility of losing kea in the mountains as unthinkable. We lose part of our mountains if we lose our kea.”

Large-scale bird recovery plans in New Zealand, like DOC’s Battle for our Birds programme, has seen major upswings in different bird species as a result of predation control in the form of traps and aerial 1080 drops.

Orr-Walker says she hopes to see a recovery plan emerge for kea as well – she’s actively working with DOC to develop such a programme.

“It’s one of the few high-profile bird species that doesn’t have a plan,” she says. Orr-Walker thinks that because kea are a controversial species, it’s taken longer to get that kind of work off the ground.

“That’s why we’re really wanting to fast-track this as much as possible to get it into people’s psyche, that this is a bird that is under severe threat, like our kiwi has been, and takahe and kakapo.

“We don’t want to get to the point where we’ve only got 1000 birds, or 100 birds. We are less than 5000 birds already, and we don’t know what the tipping point will be, or if we’ve got to that point already, and we’re just not recognising it,” Orr-Walker says. “We need a conservation push now, before we get to a point where it’s not manageable.” 

Why is it so hard to count kea?

Juvenile kea tend to congregate in groups inlaces like Arthur's Pass, but the population is generally transient with a huge habitat. Photo: Kate McInnes

Juvenile kea tend to congregate in groups, but the population is generally transient with a huge habitat. Photo: Kate McInnes

DOC kea researcher Josh Kemp says it’s extremely difficult to know the exact number of kea left in the wild due to their large habitat, which spans almost the entire Southern Alps.

“There’s no such thing as a typical kea,” Kemp says, which means researchers can’t rely on where the alpine birds will choose to live. One kea might love its hometown of Arthur’s Pass, while another will satisfy its wanderlust and travel hundreds of kilometres to a new habitat. Kemp says kea are one large, mostly transient, population, as opposed to several localised sub-populations.

Rather than investing time and money into counting individual kea, Kemp said the bulk of kea conservation energy goes into setting up more areas for predator control. Around 80 per cent of kea habitat currently has no control in place.

Kemp says DOC has an ongoing radio tagging programme for kea. About 20 to 30 birds are monitored yearly using satellite transmitters which are worn like small backpacks. They’re also monitoring anywhere from 15 to 30 nests each year.

While the current population is anyone’s guess – national estimates are 1000-5000 – Kemp is more optimistic. Based on the number of birds they’ve banded, he guesses there could be anywhere from 5000-15,000 kea in the wild. But with that, he still says there’s an appropriate level of concern for their survival.

“If we have good predator control, we can turn it all around and produce lots of young kea quite quickly. The future is rosy, provided we keep up the pressure and keep expanding [predator control].”