New Zealand has some of the best birds going. Nothing allows evolution to experiment with wackiness more than an isolated island, and with almost a 20 million year absence of native mammals, the many islands of Aotearoa have acted as laboratories for a series of very interesting avian experiments. There are pigeons that eat so many fermented berries they are known to fall out of trees totally inebriated, there's fat flightless parrots that really seem to suck at performing the most simple of survival tasks (like choosing a mate that's not human), and a rugby-ball sized ostrich that ditched eyes and chose to invest in a metal detector-like nose.
It's tough competition out there, but sit down, settle in, and let me tell you 6 reasons why you should #VoteKea for New Zealand Bird of the Year 2021.
1) They are the world's only species of alpine parrot
This ain't ya common garden parrot. No where else in the world can you battle against frosty winds in the climb to top of the mountain and be simultaneously greeted by 1kg birds squeaking like dog toys. Even their entry in the official New Zealand Birds Online encylopedia begins quite modestly with: "the kea is an unusual parrot". Ecology wise, they are arguably one of the most unique animals in the world, abandoning woodland-life for the peaks after splitting from their much calmer cousins, the Kaka, over 3 million years ago. They are adaptable scavengers, a necessary trait for living in such fluctuating climates, and use their large curvy beaks to dig up grubs, seeds and shoots.
2) They value their mates
Not only do kea have long-term monogamous relationships, but they are highly social and, especially as juveniles, flock together with flexible hierarchies. In these wandering circuses (yep that's the group name), young kea are able to learn foraging skills from adults unrelated to them.
They also have been show to solve cooperative tasks at a similar level to elephants and chimpanzees, and even laugh together...
3) They are the clowns of the mountains
Kea make a lot of unusual sounds, but one in particular looks a lot like human laughter. A warbling call sang out by a playful individual seems to infect those nearest, driving them into a playful mood and causing them to respond with more warbling. Not only is this the first case of "positive emotional contagion" being observed in non-mammal species, but play in general appears to be very important to kea.
Kea play a lot, even being one of a few select species that continue playing throughout adulthood. Combined with their killer curiosity, this has given kea an infamous reputation for mischief and clownery. They are impelled to bite, tear, steal and inspect any interesting objects that cross their path, including car aerials, hiking boots and passports.
4) They are New Zealand's smartest bird
In the animal world, curiosity and a strong social life are often associated with intelligence. Kea are no exception to this, and have demonstrated a series of cognitive abilities that have gained them titles including not only "the smartest bird in New Zealand", but also "the smartest bird in the world". For example, they have been filmed using stick tools in the wild to deactivate rodent traps, can use probabilities and social cues to solve statistical tasks, and can track the unseen trajectories of moving objects.
Most recently, a loveable and disabled kea named Bruce made headlines for his unique ingenuity. He was found in the wild with his upper beak missing, a structure that is essential for proper self-care and grooming. Now housed in a wildlife reserve, Bruce appears to have innovated a clever solution to his problem: by selecting small stones from the enclosure and holding them in his mouth, Bruce can mimic the functional surface of a missing upper beak, allowing him to better preen individual feathers.
Bruce the kea
5) They have a proven track record
Kea already won New Zealand Bird of the Year in 2017, so you can trust that they are truly winner material. The Kakapo won its second trophy in last year's competition, so maybe its time for its much more chariasmatic cousin to follow suit.
6) They need urgent help
The kea pictured above is called Sherlock, and since the last time I saw him a year ago, he has not appeared in any official recorded observations. I found him in Arthur's Pass National Park, sitting on a low branch, eyes blinking half closed, swaying weakly back and forth, and throwing up constantly for over an hour. I knew straight away that these are all, sadly, the classic symptoms of lead poisoning. In large doses and without treatment lead ingestion is often fatal, so I decided to report Sherlock to the Kea Conservation Trust. They quickly sent a volunteer to capture and transport Sherlock to a nearby animal hospital, but although we searched for Sherlock over an entire evening and morning, he was not seen again.
The small village in Arthur's Pass, one of the kea's strongholds in New Zealand, has been slow to adapt to change. According to some unofficial sources, over 50% of the buildings here still use lead-based fixtures. A figure that, if you have ever watched kea in the village before, is utterly terrifying. I have witnessed groups of 5-15 kea at a time spend at least 20 minutes biting into lead nails before flying off into the bush. The Kea Conservation Trust has begun initiates to freely remove lead from buildings, but participation from landowners is desperately needed.
Only 1000-5000 kea remain in the wild. That's dangerously low. Compared to New Zealand's flagship species for conservation, kiwi number about 70,000. Historical culls by farmers decimated their original population size, but today, introduced predators and buildings lined with lead are slowly killing them off. Their cheeky, outgoing persona has camouflaged the seriousness of their plight to many, but make no mistake, they could become extinct in the wild frighteningly soon.
So, what better way is there to spread the awareness of kea conservation and celebrate their unique and cheeky character, than by voting for kea in New Zealand's Bird of the Year 2021 competition. Voting is open to anyone anywhere and ends on the 31st October 2021. Click here to enter.