BirdLife: The Magazine Jan-Mar 2018 - Page 17

Kea are New Zealand’s Bird of the Year Photo Nicola Toki, DOC 0 Kea on Arthur’s Pass. Photo Mark Hurrell 7 About the author “GrrlScientist” is the pseu- donym of an evolutionary ecologist/ornithologist and parrot researcher. Science writer/journalist at Forbes and for the non-profit Think Tank, The Evolution Insti- tute. Podcast writer for the non-profit BirdNote Radio. Formerly: The Guardian (UK). She has over 24,000 followers on Twitter: @GrrlScientist Jan-Mar 2018 • birdlife Hackwell, Chief Conservation Advisor for Forest & Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand). The decision to uplist the Kea comes on the heels of one of this parrot’s most successful publicity campaigns. Only a few weeks ago, the Kea was officially recognised as New Zealand’s “Bird of the Year” for 2017 after a fierce campaign where more than 50,000 votes were cast. This competition, which is run by Forest & Bird, is intended to raise the profile of New Zealand’s endangered birds in the minds of the public and media. The Kea’s victory is a startling contrast from years past: until 1971, the New Zealand government paid a bounty for Kea bills, which resulted in more than 150,000 of these iconic parrots being killed, mostly by sheep farmers. Kea, which are omnivorous parrots with a taste for carrion, were suspected of attacking or killing sheep. The current state of decline is a sad legacy from that earlier eradication program, which very nearly wiped them off the face of the Earth. We estimate that there are now only 6,000 individuals alive today, roughly 4,000 of which are mature. The rugged mountain terrain of New Zealand’s Southern Alps where these parrots persist, combined with the Kea’s low population density, makes it difficult to accurately assess their numbers, but regardless, it is clear that Kea numbers are still decreasing. After people stopped legally killing Kea, other threats became more obvious. Because Kea evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, they have not developed defences against them, and nowhere is this more conspicuous than when it comes to nesting. Unlike most parrots, which nest in cavities high up in trees, Kea nest in burrows, tucked under rocks or tree roots, which makes the incubating female, her eggs and chicks especially vulnerable to predation by introduced stoats. When stoat populations periodically explode, they decimate Kea nests, reducing survival to near zero. Other predators, particularly possums, introduced rats and feral cats, add more casualties. The Kea is a large, handsome, olive-green parrot with a long tail, blue-grey flight feathers on its upper wings and orange-red patches underneath. It has an exceptionally long, downwardly-curved upper bill that it uses as a powerful all-purpose tool. Juvenile Kea can be distinguished from adults by the yellow colouring around their dark eyes and at the base of the beak. Although attractive, Kea are one of the few parrot species that have not been exploited by the pet trade — but people are still responsible for their declining numbers. Kea are perhaps unique amongst endangered wildlife because they actively seek human contact, but this can create direct conflict with their human neighbours. Like human scientists, Kea use their intellect and their powerful beaks to learn about the world by systematically dismantling parts of it. Innate curiosity shouldn’t be the fault of the Kea, despite the “trouble- maker” public perception wrongly perpetuated by some. Nevertheless, Kea do become famous for destroying stuff — bicycles, cars, and even houses become fair game. But despite Kea killing being a crime that can get an offender a $15,000-$100,000 fine and up to two years’ imprisonment under the Wildlife Act, not everyone seems to have gotten the message: for example, last September a man from Nelson was convicted of shooting and killing a Kea he claimed was trashing his 17