The kea (Nestor notabilis) is endemic to the Southern Alps of New Zealand which is named by Maori for the sound of its call. This species is the world’s only mountain parrot. They are sociable and highly intelligent birds and also well adapted to their harsh environment. They have created conflict with humans over the last 150 years due to the traits that kea developed for survival, their curiosity, and omnivorous appetite. The kea is a Nationally Endangered species and persecution and predation have sorely depleted numbers and, there are only a few thousand birds remaining.

Kea in flight – Look at the orange features underneath and blue on top of its wings

According to BOTY, Kea’s curiosity for humans can lead them into peril or sickness too.  These birds are often hit by cars, fed unnatural food, or poisoned by materials like lead after chewing on human-made things like houses and cars.

But they are smart, inquisitive creatures and no stranger to genuinely messing with humans.

David Attenborough, Renowned conservationist filmed a documentary called ‘The Smartest Parrot’ on the west coast of South Island, New Zealand for BBC about this bird known as one of the smartest and most playful of its species.

The recognition of this special bird on the nationally endangered list was admired by an organization called the Kea Conservation Trust. They also believe the Kea is more of an ambassador of New Zealanders than the reclusive Kiwi.

A co-founder of the Trust Tamsin, Orr-Walker said, “A lot of people are saying the Kea should be our national bird because they so much epitomize what it is to be a New Zealander: adventurous and up for a challenge and maybe a bit misunderstood.”

“I think New Zealanders are starting to realize how special Kea are; they are interactive birds and seek out humans which is very unusual. The fact they are declining from our mountains is alarming.”

According to the current research from the Kea Conservation Trust, 2-thirds of chicks sadly do not achieve the fledgling phase as their nests are ground-based making them easy prey for stoats, rats, and possums. (NZ government has promised to eradicate possums by 2050)

Identification

This bird is a large, strong-flying, olive-green parrot that has scarlet underwings and a slender grey-black bill. They are sexually dimorphic and the female body mass is about 20% less than males and the bill is shorter. Juveniles have yellow ceres and eyelids, and as the bird matures it fade to grey.

They sound a long, loud, high-pitched descending cry which may be broken “kee-ee-aa-aa”, or unbroken “keeeeeaaaa”. The juvenile has less stable calls in tone and is more of a loud uncontrolled whooping or squealing.

Guardian Australia · The song of the kea

Kea can be confused with other species such as Kaka is smaller, olive-brown, and very rarely seen above the timberline. They excavate the wood of live trees, but keas do not. Kaka has many different calls, such as fluting whistles and harsh grating ‘skraaarks’. The extremely rare and localized kakapo which is yellow-green rather than olive-green and lacks a scarlet underwing is larger, flightless, and nocturnal.

Distribution And Habitat

Kea can be found over about four million hectares in the axial ranges of the South Island, from Farewell Spit to Waitutu, plus the Kaikoura Ranges. They can also be found from coastal dunes to high alpine peaks. Most commonly they can be seen in montane forests and adjacent subalpine and alpine zones. They cannot be seen from the Marlborough Sounds, Catlins, Blue Mountains, and both the North Island and Stewart Island.

They need a native forest to nests within. Their foraging habitat includes all types of native forest, sub-alpine scrub, tussock, and herb-field. They spend their time on prominent rocky outcrops and windy saddles above or below the timberline and are frequently reported in pine forests adjacent to native forests.

According to a new study, one particular call, its warble also seems to spread an infectious desire to play.

The kea’s warble can make another kea extra rambunctious like you might chuckle along with a sitcom laugh track.

Researchers played a number of tracks to the kea such as, a few standard kea calls, a nondescript electronic tone, the call of the South Island robin, and finally, the notorious kea warble in the heights of Arthur’s Pass on New Zealand’s South Island.

Ximena Nelson, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury said that the birds would spontaneously start playing at the sound of the warble, even when alone. They might throw a stone or engage in some aerial acrobatics.

She described, “If they were in company if they were beside another kea that wasn’t playing, they’d immediately go tackle the other kea. It became quite clear that one particular call, the warbling call, was associated almost exclusively with one behavioral state — play.”

The study published in Current Biology suggests that keas display a concept called “positive emotional contagion.” It means that hearing one person laugh will make you also want to laugh in human terms.

Nelson explained, “It’s like a mood, but short-lived. It’s a sense of glee if you like.”

A senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, Alex Taylor, has studied the kea but was not involved with the report. According to her, the next question is whether the warbling call leads to higher amounts of play and actually makes the kea feel more playful.

He said, “It looks an awful lot like it. We just see play for a short amount of time, so that suggests it is positive emotional contagion. It’s looking very similar.”

According to Nelson, the study doesn’t illuminate the bird’s feelings, but she argued determining such an emotional state is very tricky, even in humans. “A human might tell you that they feel [playful], but to demonstrate it is a different story altogether. Of course, a kea can’t tell you.”

Many animals, when young play for the sake of it or to test their boundaries. On the other side, the kea maintains its high spirits into old age. Nelson has a few theories: Firstly, keas are quite social animals with no real dominant hierarchy, no “pecking order, if you like.”

It also said that until feral animals were introduced in New Zealand, leaving keas officially considered vulnerable to extinction. “In evolutionary terms, they probably didn’t have a huge amount to worry about in terms of predators,” she added. “So they probably had, if you like, a lot of time on their hands.”

The kea’s level of play is different when compared to other birds and even other animals. Taylor said: “Play could be an outlet for social aggression; it could be a way to build social bonds. With the kea, it’s really hard to know.”

If you heard a kea warble, consider this permission to stop and do something fun.

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