In honour of World Parrot Day, meet our feathery friend the kea

  • These tourist-loving birds live in the mountains of New Zealand and just might steal your passport
  • Keas eat anything from bugs to sheep, and even other birds
Susan Ramsay |

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In honour of World Parrot Day, let's take a look at the kea.

Today is World Parrot Day, so let’s take the chance to learn a bit about our fine feathered friends.

Parrots are famous for their ability to copy human voices and make a lot of other sounds. But there are 372 different parrots, and not all of them speak.

They come in all sizes and colours, from the brilliant Macaws to the little budgerigars (also called budgies) and the drab African grey.

They are popular pets, but be warned. They make a lot of noise and live for a very long time (many often outliving their humans). And before you buy one, make sure it comes from a breeder, and was not caught in the wild, which harms wildlife.

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Meet the kea

Most parrots live in warm tropical climates, but New Zealand’s keas are the only parrots to live in a cold alpine climate. They were also suspected in a mysterious attack on sheep, but more on that later.

Keas hang out near ski slopes, and tourists love them. They love tourists, too, because it wasn’t long before they learned that tourists would feed them. They have no problem eating bread and snacks that other parrots would not be able to break down.

Birds of a feather really do stick together.

They can be quite nosy, looking in people’s backpacks or boots. They even damage cars when they try to look at the rubber around a its windows. Sometimes, they fly away with people’s belongings – one even snatched a poor tourist’s passport.

At first, you might not realise that keas are, in fact, parrots. When they’re walking around, their outer feathers are just a boring olive colour.But when they open up their wings and fly, they show off a burst of bright orange, almost the same as a tiger’s orange fur.

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The alpine climate

Imagine a mountain, covered in forest from the ground upwards. And after the trees stop, it’s covered in snow — this is the alpine climate.

This is definitely not the warm, lush, tropical areas where most parrots live, but this is where keas live. No berries or plants grow for many months here. So, what do keas eat?

Scientists believe they, like many animals that live in alpine regions, eat lichen. It is that grey-green stuff we sometimes see growing on rocks. But that’s not the only thing that they eat.

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They eat meat ... even other birds

Along with the lichen, keas will eat a few beetle larvae, rubbish, or whatever tourists might give them.

And they are smart. They know that if a tourist doesn’t hand over food, even after keas have bugged them, the food might have been left in the car.

This is why they try to get into vehicles. So they’re not actually “looking at” car windows – they’re trying to break in!

But unlike most parrots, they also eat other birds. They have no problem breaking into nests, and gobbling any chicks they can find.

Majestic boi ... until he starts gobbling other birds.

It started with strange attacks

Sheep were first brought into kea territory when Europeans settled in New Zealand in the 1800s.

Shepherds began noticing that a mysterious creature was attacking their flocks.

The puzzling thing, though, was the sheep had not been killed and eaten – at least, not completely. Sometimes they just died from wounds on their backs or sides.

People could not figure out whether it was a disease or some kind of predator, like a wolf perhaps.

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There were no easy suspects

New Zealand is very far away from other pieces of land. It has a lot of interesting animals that cannot be found in other places.

But more importantly for this story, it has no land predators big enough to attack a sheep. So either the sheep were being attacked by dogs, which were also introduced by settlers, or it was a different creature entirely.

Surveying her kingdom.

Clues from the victims

Newborn lambs can be at risk from eagles because they are light enough to be swept up into the air by a golden eagle’s talons.

But the sheep being attacked in New Zealand were at least two years old. Depending on the breed of sheep, it would weigh around 40kg – far too heavy for any bird to lift.

The victims also had a lot of heavy wool on them when they were attacked. In the summers, when the sheep had their wool removed, there were very few attacks.

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Enter the mystery murderer

Then the stories began of keas attacking sheep. They seemed unbelievable. Scientists at that time were convinced that keas ate berries, just like any other parrot.

But as more stories came to light, scientists began taking them seriously.

Soon, they realised that keas were also scavengers that would strip the flesh off dead animals. From there, some of them went on to attack live animals. Sheep were the perfect target because they cannot defend themselves against this kind of attack.

They would also go for a tasty backpack and whatever snacks are inside.

A possible reason why kea didn’t attack newly shorn sheep in the summer is because keas can find other food during this season.

Winter is when they might need to look for meat, especially if it is weighed down by wool and is too slow to escape their hungry beaks.

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