KEA – The predatory parrot

KEA – The predatory parrot

The kea (Nestor notabilis) is a parrot-like bird of family Strigopidae, which is about the size of a hen and occurs in the alpine regions of New Zealand. Their extraordinary intelligence is comparable to the primates and hence they are sometimes nicknamed ‘mountain monkeys’.

Being highly inquisitive, keas are notorious for exploring and manipulating objects often in residential areas where they damage articles such as shoes, car seats sofas, bags etc. with their sharp and curved beak. They are highly intelligent birds with quick learning abilities. Researchers at the Universities of Vienna and Oxford tested the Kea’s problem-solving abilities by presenting birds with a box containing food and presenting several options to retrieve it. Kea quickly learnt all the options even by looking others to do it.

Kea is about half a metre in length and weighs about one kg. The wingspan is about one metre and feathers are coloured with olive green, black and orange. Like all parrots their feet are zygodactylous, meaning two toes are directed forward while the other two point backward to provide firm grip to handle varieties of objects. Keas are semi-nocturnal and they undertake most of their activities at night particularly in summer months.
They breed in burrows in protected areas such as under the trees or rocks during July to January. Eggs are incubated for 22-24 days and chicks live in the burrow for about three months, during which male brings food for chicks as well as the female attending chicks.

Kea is an omnivorous bird, feeding on carcasses, insects, berries, fruits and leaves. They have predilection for animal fat, for which they are known to attack shearwater colonies that roost on rocks. They also pull out shearwater nestlings from their burrows to kill and eat them.

For the same reason, keas are infamous for attacking sheep and make holes on their back with their sharp beak to feed on sheep’s fats and kidneys. There are videos to confirm this predatory behaviour of kea bird. It is believed that kea evolved into meat-eating bird after humans settled in New Zealand and started rearing sheep. Keas fed on leftover meat thrown outside by settlers.

Reports also point to keas killing horses, rabbits and dogs by tearing skin from the back of the animals, which later died from the wounds becoming infected. Keas were shot for preying upon the livestock for over hundred years and became endangered species. The birds received protection from the government of New Zealand in 1986, when its number went down to only 50,000. They are intelligent and playful birds which became infamous for no fault of theirs.

About the author

Dr. Girish Chandra administrator

Dr. Girish Chandra, retired Professor from Delhi University, has been teaching zoology for over 40 years and conducting research in insect taxonomy and pest control, particularly biological control and integrated pest management.