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Kea – The Smartest Parrot in the World

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Kea – The Smartest Parrot in the World

The Kea is a mountain parrot that sounds like its call – “keeee aaaa”. It is a large species of parrot found in forest and alpine regions of the South Island of New Zealand. An adult Kea can grow as large as 48cm (around 19 inches) long, and weigh 0.8 to 1 kg. The color of this bird is mainly olive-green with scarlet underwings and a grey-black upper beak which is large and curved. Female Kea weigh around 20% less than male Kea and the bill is also comparatively shorter.

Habitat

Kea can be found from coastal dunes to the high alpine peaks of the South Island such as Arthur’s Pass and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand. They are commonly found in forests and adjacent subalpine and alpine zones, and mainly nest in their native forest.

Characteristic

Kea are known for their intelligence, boldness and curiosity. These characteristics are extremely important for them to survive in a harsh mountain environment but they also get themselves into trouble, which we will talk about in a later section of this article. They are notorious for attacking sheep and very unwelcome by local sheep farmers because sometimes sheep die from wound infections or from accidents when they try to escape the attack. Though they do not directly kill the sheep, they are being treated as pests to local sheep farmers.

How intelligent are Kea?

Researchers have been researching the intelligence of Kea for years in hopes that the results can shed light on the process of human learning. In the universities of Vienna and Oxford, researchers tested Kea’s problem-solving skills by presenting them with a food-containing box, for which Kea needed to use different methods to “solve” a problem to get food – for example by pulling a switch, using a marble to knock the food out, using a stick to poke the food out and opening a window with a lever. Once the how-to-get-food solution was mastered, researchers did further testing on the Kea: they prevented all the previous actions from working. Surprisingly, the smartest Kea quickly learnt another new way to gain access to the food. In this research, the Kea was not trained to perform such actions to get food, and it wasn’t done by simply trial and error either. Instead, it was all about learning and observing! This is especially important for researchers to find out how a human child learns language, because the language learning process is not merely a trial-and-error one and researchers still don’t have the full picture yet.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLjZS-cWzmk)

Another intelligence test of Kea was carried out in Auckland University, and the preliminary result found that Kea displayed a penchant for commerce! In the preliminary experiment. “One of the researchers, PhD candidate Megan Heaney, did a few transfers backwards and forwards and, since then, every time the Kea see her they run up with a stick or a stone and try to trade it.” The preliminary experiment also indicated that Kea have the ability to delay behavior until the conditions are right to get a better result, which is quite similar to chimpanzees and elephants.

Kea are extremely curious and they are very well known for damaging cars at South Island’s ski field carparks. Believe it or not, it was reported that some tourists’ money / passports had been stolen by Kea, because they are keen on discovering new things and love interacting with humans!

Saving Kea from Extinction!

The wild Kea population has dropped to as low as 1,000 to 5,000 according to the estimation done by conservationists. Recent studies from the Kea Conservation Trust have found that two-thirds of all chicks never grow to the fledgling stage. Unlike some other birds in New Zealand such as Kiwi, Kea are not welcomed by some people because they damage cars, tents or buildings and they attack farm animals. “Stealing”, of course, is also one of the reasons why they are often not welcomed by humans. It was estimated that 150k Kea were killed from the 1860s onward due to a government bounty introduced after sheep farmers complained about the Kea. The reason why they were killed is simple – they cause financial loss to local farmers!

Researchers have currently identified three known threats to the survival of this smart and beautiful parrot. The first one is non-native animal species; because Kea nest on the ground, this makes it an easy task for predators to attack the chicks during breeding.

The second one is obvious – humans. Kea are curious about everything, including humans and what humans bring to them; vivid-colored objects, books, even coffee, and of course food are all huge temptations to Kea, especially food and drinks that provide much higher energy to Kea than their natural food such as berries, roots, shoots and insect larvae. Once they are “addicted” to these “junk foods”, young Kea may lose the important survival ability to find their natural food. Moreover, the abundant high energy food source by humans greatly helps to reduce their time used for food finding. This means they now have more spare time to explore the human world further, which accelerates their extinction. Not to mention many of them are still hunted by humans because they damage properties (such as sheep or car window wipers).

The last but certainly not least threat to Kea is less obvious – lead poisoning. Lead is reported to have a sweet taste that is appealing to Kea. There are thousands of old buildings and huts dotted around the South Island and lead is often found in these. By chewing the lead fixtures of these old buildings, some Kea may get lead poisoning and their brains are damaged severely as they accumulate so much lead in their bodies. According to a study undertaken by researchers at the Department of Conservation and the New Zealand Wildlife Health Centre at Massey University, 64% of Kea in populated areas had blood lead levels high enough to cause lead poisoning, and 22% had elevated levels. Not surprisingly, the study had shown that the lead poisoning problem in populated areas was higher than that in remote areas.

Survival of the fittest – it is easy to accept that living things with low skill / low intelligence are more likely to face extinction. It is ironic that Kea, such a “skillful” and intelligent bird, is now facing extinction. Indeed, it is fairly sad that such a human-loving (at least they love to approach humans) bird ends up being killed either directly or indirectly by humans.

Genesis 2:15 “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”

How to Protect Kea from Extinction

To protect Kea from extinction, we need to minimize or eliminate the above three threats to Kea’s survival. For the non-native animal predators, the New Zealand government recently unveiled an “ambitious goal” to eradicate all non-native predators in New Zealand by 2050. According to John Key, the prime minister of New Zealand, these “pests” cost the country’s agricultural industry NZ$3.3billion (US$2.3billion) annually, killing about 25 million native birds (including Kea) every year.

Another way to protect Kea is for them to avoid human contact. We first need to educate people to love and try to understand their “naughty” acts so that less Kea will be killed by humans. Also, we should try to keep this alpine environment wild in order to remove temptation from Kea. AND PLEASE DO NOT FEED KEA!

Unfortunately, the lead poisoning threat is by far the most difficult question to solve. There are so many old buildings / huts in that region and the coordination or co-operation between landlords, conservation parties, volunteers and contractors involves a huge amount of manpower and resources.

If you want to help protect Kea from extinction, you may also consider making a donation to the Kea Conservation Trust. Together we can save Kea from extinction!

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