The cleverest thieves in New Zealand

A year or so ago, I was in a hut in the middle of nowhere in Fiordland, enjoying the last hour of so of blissful sleep before another day of hard slogging through the bush. Dawn was approaching, and the sky was just fading into a milky pink colour. It was a scene of peace, of tranquillity…

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SSSSCCCRRRAATTTTTCCCHHH!! The most hideous noise echoed around the walls of the hut. It was like nails on a chalkboard, but so much worse. It sent shivers down my spine, and not in a good way. Someone rolled over. I heard groggy utterances of “what the hell?” and “ah the little f***ers are at it again”. A little feathered green face appeared at the window, dangling upside down from the eaves in a way that would have been comical in other circumstances.

It was a kea.

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For a moment, the face disappeared, then SSSSCCCRRRAATTTTTCCCHHH, and the face reappeared in the window. I could swear he was laughing at us.

So this was his little game. He would stand on top of the tin roof, then slide down to the gutter with his claws making a noise more horrible than the music from Psycho. Then he would peek though the window to make sure his efforts were being duly noticed (I don’t know how they couldn’t be), then he would do it again. And again. And again.

Then the noise stopped. Thank goodness, he must have got bored and gone away. I rolled over and started drifting off to sleep again.

SSSSCCCRRRAATTTTTCCCHHH! SSSSCCCRRRAATTTTTCCCHHH!

Then two faces appeared at the window.

Alas, he’d just gone to find an accomplice to join in the fun.

No more sleep for us then.

………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Keas are a native parrot, and they are ridiculously clever. They can solve complicated puzzles to get a reward. One test had young kea observing an experienced adult opening a locked box 1 – this involved poking out a bolt, removing a split pin, and twisting a screw before the lid could be lifted – the young ones would pick up tips from the adults, so it would only take them a couple of turns to get the hang of opening the box themselves. Keas can also learn to use tools 2 – something that humans didn’t figure out until very well down our evolutionary track. I find this pretty amazing from a bird with, well, a bird brain.

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They like to steal stuff because they eat an omnivorous diet, so basically they’ll eat anything they can find, and will take off with anything that resembles food. – I hold a particular grudge against a kea which took off with a bag of coffee which I stupidly left lying around. I cursed that bird with every throb of my head for the next 2 days until I reached civilisation!

Their tendency to destroy things (especially soft, rubber/sponge things) is probably to see if it is edible, or hiding any edible bits. – I just wish they’d figured out that my bike seat wasn’t concealing any delicious treats before they’d shredded it.

But their survivalist abilities eventually lead to their demise. In the early days of high-country sheep farming in the South Island, keas discovered an affinity for sheep kidney fat. No other kind of delicacy would do. So they quickly learned to land on sheep and pick through their skin to the delicious fat on their backs. This usually didn’t kill the sheep, but sent them mad with pain, which lead to a lot of sheep running off cliffs in their agony. Nice.

Needless to say, keas weren’t very highly regarded by farmers. In fact, the New Zealand government issued a bounty on them. – 10 shillings per beak handed in (about $65 in today’s money). Clever as keas are, they can’t avoid a bullet. About 150 000 were killed, until there were only about 5000 left, and the bounty was revoked.

Despite their low numbers, chances of seeing keas in the wild are quite high because they go where people go. People leave behind food, and drive around in vehicles with all sorts of interesting rubber bits to pick off, so we probably get a bit of a skewed idea about how many keas there actually are out there.

I highly advise going into kea country to visit these amazing birds in the wild. Their territory in the mountains of the South Island is incomparably beautiful and rugged.

Just hold on to your hat.

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Stuff I referenced:

1. Huber L et al. 2001. Social learning affects object exploration and manipulation in keas, Nestor notabilis. Anim. Behav. 62(5), 945-954.

2. Augsberg A et al. 2010. Kea, Nestor notabilis, produce dynamic relationships between objects in a second-order tool use task. Anim. Behav. 80(5) 783-789.

 Photos in this blog reproduced with permission from Dave McLean.

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