New Zealand is a place with many faces. A quaint, rural country of farms and adorable accents. Or a rugged and untamed playground for adrenaline-seeking white trust-fund kids. Or that place with the sheep and Flight of the Concords. Or Middle Earth.
But New Zealand, from a biological and geological standpoint, is an incredibly special place. The islands were once part of Australia and Antarctica nearly 100 million years ago. The chunk of land that made up New Zealand split off and traveled along the intersection of two giant tectonic plates, causing the uplift of the snowy Southern Alps and various volcanoes. It’s isolation from major landmasses (Australia is more the 900 miles to the west, nearest Polynesian islands are about 600 miles away) has given New Zealand a set of flora and fauna unlike anywhere else on Earth. It was so isolated, that it is likely one of the last places on Earth (with the exception of Antarctica) to be colonized by humans; potentially as late as 1300 A.D. by Polynesian sailors. Its location in temperate latitudes (roughly between 30 and 50 degrees south) gives it a climate more akin to the Pacific Northwest than to its Australian or Oceanic neighbors. With the exception of some parts of southern Chile, New Zealand is the only appreciable bit of land in the Southern Hemisphere to experience this type of climate, and the completely unique set of biological players give New Zealand an aire of alieness, clouded by the familiarity put forth by convergent evolution.
One such unique biological player is the kea (Nestor notabilis), one member of a small family of New Zealand parrots (Strigopidae) that diverged from their closest parrot cousins around 80 million years ago, when New Zealand separated from the southern supercontinent of Gondwanaland. Keas are found in patches all over the uplands of the South Island, and are the only alpine parrots in the world. Adapting to the harsh-as-hell conditions in the jagged peaks of the Southern Alps, and surviving repeated Ice Age glaciations, has resulted in the evolution of some intriguing behaviors.
Keas are among the brainiest birds around. They are incredibly social, living in tight-knit groups of about thirteen birds. They are capable of working together to solve problems of acquiring food and surviving the harsh winter season. They will even frolick and play with each other in snowbanks (as shown above) in a disgustingly cute display of ridiculous birdy intelligence. Look at that. You can almost hear the giggles and “tee hees.”
It would be an understatement to say that keas are inquisitive. Apparently, a very successful strategy in the cold mountains is to possess ‘neophilia’, which is quite literally a love and fascination with everything new. Even before there was a glut of Europeans adventuring in the uplands, keas would seek out the few farmers or miners in the area. Because hey, they have trinkets and shiny things to play with! This curiosity, coupled with the brain power to work together and solve logical puzzles, make keas incredibly obnoxious thieves. You can guarantee if a group of keas (known as a ‘circus’) descends on you in the mountains, and you stop to feed them or play around with them, you’re going to lose something from your back pocket if a kea hasn’t seen it before.
Keas won’t hoard these little treasures. Typically they’ll mess around with them a bit, break them, figure out how it’s all put together…or they’ll just take off with it just to be a dick. One Scottish man a couple years back had his passport stolen by a kea, which is understandable; if I lived in the frigid Southern Alps I’d want to find a way out too. It’s not like keas live in the most beautiful place on Earth or anything.
The apparent friendliness of keas, and their wacky antics, have led to the nickname of “the clown of the mountains.” The South Island, a huge adventure/eco/LOTR tourism hotspot, sees many, many people driving through the mountain passes in the warmer months. Some come to see the spectacular mountain views, or hang glide, or swear on their mother’s grave that THIS is the spot where they built Meduseld, but others come prepared to interact with keas. This has led to excessive feeding of keas, usually things like bread or chips, which has just fueled their insatiable quest for knowledge and fucking with humans to get what they want. The last thing we need are super-keas flying around, hopped up on brain food, plotting their next move on the downfall of humanity.
The kea’s criminal inclinations don’t stop at theft and extortion of carbs; they have the capacity to cost humans lots and lots of money via vandalism. Keas tend to like parked cars, mostly for the rubber sealing surrounding windows and doors, which they pry out with their sharp, thin beaks…you know, just for shits and giggles:
There have been reports of cars being heavily damaged by groups of keas. So, if you have a brand new car and you’re on a celebratory trip to the Southern Alps, it may not be a wise decision to leave it parked and unsupervised for long. It’s likely that keas have learned that cars house people, which in turn have food to give to them. Keas are apparently smart enough to realize that if they are denied food by traveling humans, that food may remain inside the vehicle, hence the toying with and ripping of rubber parts as they try to figure out how to get inside. Also, the rubber bits are probably just fun to mess with if you live the mountains and nothing is more pliable than a hunk of granite. Either way, one can be confident that these smart birds know exactly the ins and outs of where their bready treats come from and how to get it.
Bread, of course, isn’t part of the natural diet of these guys. Part of the reason they can handle such starchy foods is because they are one of the few omnivorous parrot species, an adaptation to an alpine environment in which sugary fruits aren’t exactly available year-round. They tend to feed on plant matter like roots, leaves, meager berries, nectar, and seeds. They also go after small animals like insects. And, if you haven’t been able to tell already from the previous photos showcasing the shape of their beaks, they enjoy something else as well:
Keas have what are essentially switchblades grafted onto their faces. That sharp-as-all-hell schnoz is typically used to rip into carrion…because keas hunger for flesh. Up until very recently, they would fill the role of vultures in the mountainous regions of the South Island, cleaning up the carcasses of other birds…seeing as how no land mammals existed in New Zealand other than the rats and dogs Polynesian settlers brought with them. By this point, it should be clear that these are not your normal, soft, laid-back, papaya-munching, babbling parakeets. Keas are basically what happens when your budgie starts hanging out with the wrong kids at school, gets a few tattoos, develops a raging drinking problem, and joins a motorcycle gang after doing time in Chino for violent assault. Keas haven’t called their mothers in awhile because they are ashamed of the horrific things they’ve done.
I clarify these things so what I’m about to share isn’t so shocking: keas regularly attack sheep.
When Europeans started colonizing New Zealand in the 18th century, they brought along livestock…one of which was the sheep, for which New Zealand is famous for today. It is thought that keas, scavenging on dead sheep, figured out that they could take bits and pieces from living ones as well. Once the taste was established, keas started ripping off hunks of skin, fat, and flesh from the loins and backs from slow or wounded sheep. However, there is evidence to suggest they will also regularly attack healthy sheep if the opportunity presents itself. While this will not kill the sheep, it allows for infection and blood poisoning to occur, which can eventually dispatch the sheep.
Starting in the mid-19th century, around the time sheep farming moved into the higher country, sheep farmers started noticing that their animals had gaping, bleeding holes all over them, and were convinced that the kea was to blame. Fearful for their economic well-being, seeing as how wool was the chief export of New Zealand for more than a century, a campaign against the kea was hatched, so to speak. The government of New Zealand paid a bounty for kea beaks to help get rid of the demonic little parrots. An estimated 150,000 birds were slaughtered in the hundred years since the policy’s enactment and the protection of the birds starting in the 1970s. Killing kea was fairly simple; the birds were so curious they would fly right up humans for closer inspection…where they would be blown to bits. A good-sized night fire set up by farm hands out on the land would attract kea for miles around like they were giant, feathered moths.
These days, the kea is an endangered species in New Zealand, and numbers are slowly growing and the population is recovering. Kiwis tend to love their native birds, and the kea is no exception. The kea’s “cheeky” personality, beautiful coloration (rich greens and browns with bright orange under the wings), biological uniqueness, and ability to attract tourists and pump money into the local economy is enough to excuse the occasional dismantled Volvo…or sheep. While the people of New Zealand are now enamored with their “clowns of the mountain,” I’m still wary. Something tells me that after suffering at the hands of humans, and narrowly coming back from the brink of extinction, the clever kea may have plans of world conquest in mind.
© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.