Clown of the Mountains

A visitor alone in the tourist vacuum of the COVID-19 pandemic, armed with a backpack raincover haphazardly covering my camera, ISO cranked up to its limit, and some very thick gloves on, that winters morning with the kea was one of my most personal and memorable experiences with nature.

Kea are infamous in New Zealand. Best known to outsiders as the alpine parrot, here they are synonymous with mischief. Almost five million years of social evolution on an island isolated from mammals has helped them become extraordinarily intelligent, and like the smartest of creatures, they possess a hearty dose of curiosity.

Park near their territory, and you’ll join scores of visitors with stories of stolen aerials and broken windscreen wipers. Sit down for lunch at Arthur’s Pass, a national park nestled within the Southern Alps and the most popular location for kea-watching, and you’d likely be berated by a raucous flock with eyes on your stash.

The Southern Alps, land of kea

Their inquisitive and cheeky persona has made them the clowns of the mountains, yet this propensity for mayhem is only a disguise.

There are only an estimated 1000-5000 kea remaining in the wild. That’s just 7% of the total size of current kiwi populations, the country’s beloved poster-bird for conservation (and that’s the optimistic figure). The main threat to kea today comes from egg-predation by introduced mammals and lead poisoning from building materials, but a history of persecution by the farming industry has previously decimated their numbers.

In the 1860s, a bounty on kea was put out by the New Zealand government due to their involvement in the killing of livestock. Over 150,000 kea were killed before the bounty was officially lifted in 1970, including individuals living in protected areas far away from farms.

In an effort to prevent these unique birds from further falling into the grip of extinction, the Kea Conservation Trust was founded to create a sustainable future for kea populations through conservation, research and education. Tackling the problem at its core, they regulate pest trapping for invasive mammals across the South Island, for species such as possum, stoats and rats, which are all known to kill kea chicks, and capture and ring wild kea to monitor population changes. The use of aerially-dropped poison has also become a common technique for pest control, and although data suggests that well-timed treatment can boost kea nest success by about 30% on average, the use of certain poisons is also responsible for numerous kea deaths. The use of a well-known poison known as "1080" is a heavily divisive issue in New Zealand, but at the heart of the debate is a simple question: how many kea deaths by 1080 is too many?

A wonky future

Nevertheless, every new chick that survives long enough to fledge is a victory for kea conservation, such as the young, wonky-beaked juvenile I met in the snow above. Juvenile kea, also being the most outgoing and destructive age bracket, possess characteristic yellow markings around their eyes and the base of their beak, which will eventually be lost as they mature. Individuals can be tracked by their rings, which are used to give each kea a unique name in the Kea Database, an open-access citizen-science initiative. Young wonky here was unbanded, along with at least two other yellowed-juveniles when I encountered his flock, meaning all three are a brand-new generation of kea and hopefully represent a positive future for wild populations.

Winter dream

Watching kea playing in winter snow amongst the wild mountains has long been a dream of mine, and when I saw the forecast predicting heavy snowfall, I just had to try my luck. Although most of the world was still (and is still) in full or partial lockdown over the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand was ahead of the game. With no social restrictions in place, New Zealanders are free to explore their country again, and there's not a tourist in sight.

Arriving in Arthur's Pass National Park I was pessimistic, but never before did this wash away so quickly. Having barely enough time to check in to my very empty lodgings, I soon heard the characteristic chattering of the world’s only alpine parrot right outside. Across the road a rowdy mischief of half a dozen juvenile delinquents and a couple of level-headed adults was foraging by a house, and were certainly not being noise conscious. Snow was forecast for the following morning, and though their presence already made this trip worth it, I could only pray that they would stick around. Luckily, they didn't seem to be in any rush.

Cognitive ripples

Play, thought to function in novel object exploration and social bonding, has always been associated with intelligence. Though usually restricted to the youngest members of the species, the clever kea never seems to stop playing. They are a feathered force of brutish exploration, and will manipulate – to us, destroy – any interesting materials that happen to be in their way, with their large, curved beaks. Even sabotaging efforts to safeguard them from invasive predators, kea have been caught on video using stick tools to safely set-off pest traps and access the bait within.

Neo, one of the best behaving birds at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Away from photography, it is this intelligent side of kea that interests me the most. Studying for a PhD in comparative cognition, I conduct research on the cognition and behaviour of several species as part of the Animal Minds Lab, including a population of captive kea housed in a wildlife reserve in Christchurch, New Zealand. 13 individuals live here, including the most recent addition of a fledged juvenile named Megatron, who, without the learned hesitation of a kea brought up in the wild, has absolutely no fear, nor personal boundaries, when it comes to play.

Property of Megatron

Recent research from my lab has shown that kea can reason about the outcome of events using relative probabilities, and can even understand when humans are rigging the system by biasing certain outcomes. Their ability to flexibly infer and reason about causal events is highly sophisticated and resembles what we see in primates, yet evolved in complete separation from mammals and is produced by a brain with an entirely different structure and neural composition.


Clever kea

In this experiment, kea have been trained that black but not orange tokens can be exchanged for a food reward. When these tokens are taken out of two transparent jars filled with black or orange tokens, and presented in closed fists, kea must track the hidden position of rewarding black tokens to succeed.

After training, these jars then become filled with a combination of black and orange tokens in varying ratios. To claim food rewards across multiple tests, kea must reason using statistics: they must choose the jar with the highest proportion of black tokens, as this gives them the highest probability of success. It turns out that kea are very consistent at choosing the correct hand in this task, and further, when they must decide between the hands of two experimenters, but one experimenter has been shown to bias their selection to always pick a black token, the birds prefer to choose this biased experimenter