Meet The Kea – The Cleverest And The Most Playful Clown Of The Alps

The Kea species is an endemic species to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. It is also named Maori and it is the only mountain parrot species in the area. They are highly intelligent and quite social parrots adapted to harsh environmental conditions.

But, their characteristics such as omnivorous appetite and curiosity which help them survive have created conflicts between the Keas and humans for about 150 years. A depletion of the bird population has been recorded due to predation and persecution. Only about 1000 birds are remaining by now and this drastic drop has led these species to be marked as a Nationally Endangered species.

Kea in flight – witness the orangish feathers underneath and blue on top.

Keas are quite seriously curious about humans and this curiosity has led them into sickness or peril according to BOTY — these birds are often fed artificial food and poisoned materials and hit by cars.

However, they aren't strangers to mess around with humans but smarter and inquisitive than we expect.

One of the renowned conservationists, David Attenborough's documentary titled ‘The Smartest Parrot’ for BBC too portrayed this amazing bird which is the most intelligent and playful of its species. This specific documentary was filmed on the west coast of South Island, New Zealand.

The Kea Conservation organization was grateful for this documentary due to the national recognition gained to this bird species that is on the nationally endangered list. The organization also expressed its belief of the Kea being an ambassador of New Zealanders than the reclusive Kiwi.

The co-founder of the organization, 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,” she said.

“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.”

Kea attacking a car

One of the main research studies from the Kea Conservation Trust revealed that 2-thirds of the Kea chicks do not achieve the fledgling phase as their nests are ground-based. This has become a big issue since the chicks have become easy prey for possums, rats, and stoats. (incidentally, the NZ government has promised to eradicate possums by 2050)


The Kea is a strong, large, olive green colored bird that can have stronger flights than the rest of the parrot community. The parrot has scarlet underwings and a slender grey-black bill. They are sexually dimorphic creatures. Females' body mass is about 20% less than males'. The bill is shorter. Juveniles have yellow ceres and eyelids but fade to grey with maturity.

Their call sounds loud and long and it is high-pitched. They have a descending cry which may be broken “kee-ee-aa-aa”, or unbroken “keeeeeaaaa”. Many quiet contact calls are produced. Juvenile calls are unstable and it is an uncontrollable squealing or whooping sound.

Confusion between the Kea and other parrot species happens rarely. Kaka which is another type is olive-brown in color, smaller, and rarely seen above the timberline. They have a peculiar characteristic to excavate the wood of live trees, whereas the Keas do not. Even the way of calling is quite different and the same to a harsh grating ‘skraaarks’ or fluting whistles. Moreover, Kakas are large, flightless, and nocturnal animals that lack scarlet underwing.

Distribution and habitat

The Keas spread over about four million hectares along with the axial ranges of the South Island, from Farewell Spit to Waitutu, plus the Kaikoura Ranges. And also these birds can be seen from coastal dunes to high alpine peaks. They are most commonly witnessed in montane forests and adjacent subalpine and alpine zones. There is an absence of them from the Marlborough Sounds, Catlins, Blue Mountains, and both the North Island and Stewart Island.

They often nest in native forests. Different types of sub-alpine scrubs, native forests, and herb fields can be listed as their foraging habitats. The Keas socialize on wind saddles above or below the timberline and prominent rocky outcrops. Many of them have been reported in pine forests adjacent to native forests too.

IMAGE: Terry Whittaker/Flipa/ImageBroker//Rex/Shutterstock

Another new study reveals that one warble has the potential to spread an infectious desire to play.

As much as you chuckle along with a sitcom laugh track, the warbling sound of the Keas can motivate another Kea to be extra rambunctious.

The researchers played several tracks to the Kea during the heights of Arthur’s Pass on New Zealand’s South Island. Some of them were a nondescript electronic tone, a few standard kea calls, the call of the South Island robin, and finally, the notorious kea warble.

As per the reports of the co-author, Ximena Nelson who is an associate professor at the University of Canterbury, the Keas suddenly start warbling even when they're alone meaning that they can play alone by engaging in acrobatics or throwing stones.

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


Another documentary published in Current Biology, says that Keas shows a concept called “positive emotional contagion.” For example, this means the desire to laugh when you hear someone else's laughter.

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

Alex Taylor, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland has observed the traits of Kea. His question is to know whether warbling call leads to higher play. In other means to get to know whether positive emotional contagion is real.

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

According to Nelson, the report on Keas doesn't highlight the feelings of the bird. “A human might tell you that they feel [playful], but to demonstrate it is a different story altogether,” she stated. “Of course, a kea can’t tell you.”

Barry Harcourt/Stuff

Usually, the animals play when they are young to test their boundaries or to test the energy. But, Kea, on the other hand, has the strength to play even during old age. What are the reasons for this high spirit? Nelson suggests a few theories: The socialized feature is the main characteristic. They have no real dominant hierarchy — no “pecking order if you like.”

Apart from these, Keas were officially announced vulnerable to extinction before the introduction of feral animals in New Zealand. “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.”

Anyhow, one thing is apparent: The playfulness of the Keas is remarkably higher than the other animals. “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,” stated Taylor.

Well in case you hear a warbling call of a Kea next time, stop for a while and try doing something fun with it!

0/Post a Comment/Comments

Previous Post Next Post