Keas

The kea.

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.”

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