Philip Temple

Kea: the feisty parrot

Inquisitive, intelligent, bold—kea find humans and their cast-offs every bit as intriguing as we find them. But our relationship with these cocky mountain parrots has not always been so cordial. For over a century, farmers slaughtered kea in their thousands in retribution for their attacks on sheep. Only now, with changes in high-country management and new insights into kea behaviour, are we learning to live with this spirited bird.

Written by       Photographed by Michael Schneider

In September 1983, the old Pompolona Hut on the Milford Track was destroyed by flood when the pent-up Clinton River broke through its winter avalanche dam. The walking track season was only six weeks away. Planners, builders and helicopter crews worked night and day to complete a new but complex before the first walkers arrived.

The local clan of kea took a keen inter­est in all this frantic activity after a cold and quiet winter. Just what were these people up to? One bird, for whom build­ing materials seemed to hold a particular attraction, began stealing nails. So per­sistent was the bird’s thievery that an ex­asperated carpenter chased it (in vain) over the roof of the new main hut. While his back was turned, another kea stole his packet of roll-your-owns, shredding to­bacco and papers to the raucous approval of spectator kea perched in nearby trees.

Weeks later, after the new hut had been completed, the purloined nails were discovered. They had been neatly laid in the gutters of an outbuilding’s iron roof, sorted according to size.

Such stories about kea, the “clowns of the mountains”, are an inescapable part of South Island high country lore. It is hard to conjure up an image of our moun­tains without them, these rough, tough parrots with an eye for the main chance, delighting everyone with their monkey-like antics. But there is a darker side to this screeching joker.

In August 1992, television producer Rod Morris, on location at Glenorchy for a documentary about kea, finally filmed what high-country farmers have been tell­ing a sceptical outer world for more than 100 years. This one-kilogram, half-metre-­long parrot attacks, and can kill, sheep. From a camp high in the winter snows, using a light intensifier in sub-zero tem­peratures, Morris and his crew recorded kea harassing a merino wether during the early hours of the morning. The footage shows the birds perched on the sheep’s rump, dipping into a gaping wound in the animal’s back. They are feeding on live flesh and blood. Caught red-beaked. Now high country farmers can say, “We told you so. Look what the kea have been doing to our flocks. See the damage and suffering they cause. They must be con­trolled.”

For most of the last 130 years, high country farmers, with the support of sym­pathetic government agencies, have been controlling kea. Conservatively, 150,000 have been killed in the name of protecting sheep. Some retributive killing continues even now, but, since the kea was given full protection in 1986, many farmers have cooperated with the Department of Conservation (DOC) in try­ing to solve the long-standing kea prob­lem. It could be that the real problem will be keeping this bird off the endangered and, ultimately, extinct list. It is estimated that fewer than 10,000 are left.


Kea have been part of my life since my first climbing trip into the Southern Alps. In September 1959, as we trudged through heavy spring snow up the Anti-Crow tributary of the Waimakariri, a bird flew overhead, flashing its scarlet underwings.

“Is it a hawk?” I asked my companion, observing the hooked beak and powerful claws.

“No. A parrot, I think.” It was an opinion which seemed confirmed by the bird’s unmusical screeching.

“Funny place for a parrot,” said I. Even at this dawn of my ornithological know­ledge, an alpine parrot seemed an avian oxymoron.

As I spent more time in the mountains, I grew to expect from each trip a lesson from kea about flying or foraging or just getting about in the world above the for­est. I watched kea soar on thermals and gully updraughts, their effortless circling making mock of my clumsy alpine stum­bles. They woke me with dawn screech­ings down the chimneys of musterers’ huts and stole my socks when I wasn’t looking. They pulled at my pack straps as I rested and tossed stones at me while I lay still and silent in twilight tussocks.

Hanging from the guttering in nor’west rain, they kept an eye on my early crea­tive endeavours as I sat scribbling in an Arthur’s Pass bach. I watched them learn to open windows by lifting casement arms, slide back ranchslider doors and remove the heavy wooden lids of rubbish bins by rocking as a team on their edges. I quickly formed the belief that kea were not the clowning fools they appeared at first sight, and had a firm grasp on alpine survival.

At Arthur’s Pass in the early 1960s I met the awkward and reclusive chemist Dick Jackson, who seemed, single-handedly, to be finding out what made kea tick. Mountaineers thought he was a bit strange, wandering alone in the moun­tains, obsessed with birds. Jackson could catch kea by sliding his hand up branches and nabbing them from behind at their blind spot. He banded over 600 of them, enabling him to make the first records of kea range and movement. They proved to be generally homebodies, though some­times the Jackson birds were sighted or recovered up to 40 kilometres away from the Pass.

Dick Jackson told me tales of kea be­haviour that I found hard to credit. He spoke of boss kea who dropped stones on young males who became too obstreper­ous. And how, after the disastrous early summer rains of 1957 which led to the Otira flood, he found eggs smashed and eaten in the nests he monitored. “The subalpine flowers were destroyed by the rain,” he said. “And the adults knew there would no berry crop for juveniles, so…” That season many adults them­selves died from starvation.

Jackson found dozens of kea nests, confirming that they preferred sites at or near the timberline, in natural caves formed by old moraines or in rock and slip debris. It seemed that the high loca­tion of kea nests contributed to the bird’s ability to survive the depredation of in­troduced predators such as stoats. But Jackson told me that he had once found a dead possum outside a kea nest. Dis­patched by kea? Jackson obviously thought so.

When Dick Jackson disappeared on a solo mountain trip in 1989, I recalled his conviction that kea were not the meat-hungry harriers and scavengers that sheep farmers made them out to be; that they were only vegetarians who enjoyed the occasional grub or lump of butter. I hoped Dick had not found out otherwise.


The kea, Nestor notabilis, shares its genus with the kākā, another native parrot that conforms much more closely in its bill shape, diet and forest behaviour to parrots in Aus­tralia and New Guinea. The line of dis­persal from those regions appears con­firmed by the third species in the genus, the Norfolk Island kākā, which was wiped out by convicts and early settlers in the 1800s. But descriptions and draw­ings of the bird show that it was essen­tially a smaller kākā with different col­ouring: bright orange cheeks and yellow belly, compared to the reds and crimsons of the New Zealand bird.

We may never know how many mil­lion years ago Nestor arrived here, or ex­actly when a variant subspecies of our original proto-parrot took to the hills to begin the kea line. But this process of alpine adaptation seems consistent with mountain-building processes in the South Island which began between 10 and 15 million years ago.

Extensive glaciations within the last million years saw much of New Zealand under an alpine, subalpine or tundra re­gime for long periods—events which may have been the final defining forces for the character of the new bird. A larger and heavier Nestor emerged, with a beak adapted for prying into the stony nooks and crannies of a semibarren landscape, and with a physiology adapted to a cold climate. The pressure to survive in such a difficult environment may have further developed Nestor’s already considerable intelligence by stimulating more re­sourcefulness in foraging for food.

Recent fossil work by paleoecologists Trevor Worthy and Richard Holdaway has thrown a better light on the kea’s an­cient history. They have demonstrated, from bones found in a Waitomo cave, that kea populated the North Island during the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago, when much of the North Island south of the 38th parallel had an alpine or subalpine environment. Lore collected by Elsdon Best in the 19th century indicated that the kea survived in the North Island high country until after the arrival of the Māori, but it has been seen there only as a straggler in European times.

Worthy and Holdaway’s work with 4000-year-old moa bones from the Pyra­mid Valley swamp in North Canterbury has also yielded an illuminating hypoth­esis. As well as moa skeletal remains, the swamp has yielded the bones of numer­ous other species, among them pigeons, weka, giant eagles and kea—enough to show that they were frequent visitors to the site. Worthy and Holdaway found damage to moa bones which had clearly been caused by the beaks of giant Harpagornis eagles preying on moa trapped in the swamp. But there was an­other kind of damage, especially in the pelvic area of moa, which may have been caused by a bird with a smaller, finer beak, consistent with a kea’s. The link between kea attacking moa and kea at­tacking sheep is a seductive one, difficult to resist.

Worthy and Holdaway’s work also showed that kea inhabited the dry mosaic forests east of the Southern Alps after the retreat of the last major glaciation. These forests were dominated by Nothofagus beech and broken up by stony, braided rivers, swamps and tussock grasslands.

The arrival of the Māori did kea no good. By the 16th century, most of the mosaic forests were burned out, the moa cleaned up and the kea themselves fan­cied for feathers and kai—though not as avidly as the more colourful and sweeter kākā. But there was still a vast range of unspoiled mountain land for the kea, where Māori ventured only in small num­bers for greenstone or midsummer hunt­ing. Māori had indirectly disposed of the kea’s fiercest enemy, too. The giant eagle starved without the moa for prey, and kea now had to cope only with the occasional furious falcon. Or the odd stray kiore. The worst enemy was yet to come.

Kea went into the European record books when William Mantell collected a specimen in Southland in 1856. As sur­veyors, prospectors and farmers moved into the South Island high country in the years following, they reckoned the kea’s range was extending further and further north, though it is more likely that they simply hadn’t travelled the country enough to see it. By 1904, it had been recorded in all the southern ranges from Nelson to Fiordland.

The attitude of most 19th century Eu­ropeans to both the kea and its environment is exemplified by Samuel Butler’s account of exploring the headwaters of the Harper tributary of the Rakaia River in 1860. In his classic, A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, he wrote, “This bush, though very beautiful to look at, is composed of nothing but the poorest black birch… There was a kind of dusky brownish-green parrot, too, which the scientific call a Nestor. What they mean by this name I know not. To the unscien­tific it is a rather dirty looking bird, with some bright red feathers under its wings. It is very tame, sits still to be petted, and screams like a real parrot. Two attended us on our ascent after leaving the bush.

We threw many stones at them, and it was not their fault that they escaped un­hurt.” Here ended a lesson that kea took only a few generations to permanently absorb. They don’t come close enough to be petted now.

On the way back, Butler and his mate “burnt the flats, and made a smoke which was noticed between 50 and 60 miles off”. For kea, the burnings which oc­curred up and down the eastern slopes of the Southern Alps were nothing less than catastrophes. And after the fires came thousands of woolly mammals that scoffed every remaining succulent shrub and berry in sight. For a couple of hun­dred thousand long-lived, principally vegetarian parrots, the prospects were bleak.

First signs of a new sheep disease were reported by shepherds on the Lake Wanaka Station in 1867. But what were first taken to be sores in the loin area of sheep were soon seen to be wounds caused by an unidentified animal. Dogs, hawks and gulls were progressively dis­counted until the initially ridiculed sug­gestion that the “Nestor parrot” could be responsible was finally confirmed by eye­witness accounts.

The run holders and shepherds were soon convinced, but 40 years passed be­fore George Marriner’s investigations per­suaded the scientific community. In his technical papers and book, The Kea, a New Zealand Problem (1908), Marriner recorded the sheepmen’s evidence. Kea attacked sheep in flocks of up to 120. They ran sheep to death. Up to four at a time rode on their rumps, pulling off wool and tearing at the flesh between the ribs and pelvis. The kea drove sheep off bluffs or just harried them until they col­lapsed from exhaustion. The loin wounds were big and deep enough for a sheep’s entrails to be drawn out. The “murder­ers” gorged themselves on living sheep. Hundreds, thousands of sheep died at the beaks of the “killer keas”, probably five per cent of the total high country flocks. This parrot turned “bird of prey” could get into “a murderous frenzy, and do a lot of damage before their thirst for slaughter is satiated.”

The cause of death of many sheep was early identified as a virulent kind of blood poisoning caused by Clostridium bacteria transmitted by the kea’s beaks. Scores of sheep would die overnight, of­ten from minor wounds. The reason for the kea attacks was put down to the fact that they had acquired, through their natural curiosity, a taste for sheep meat and fat from carcases hung on station gal­lows before human consumption, or from skins tossed over fences to dry. Marriner admitted that kea were probably driven by hunger to investigate and attack sheep, especially during winter when natural food was scarce. The question he and everyone else failed to ask was, what did all those kea eat during winter before there were sheep?

Recent research reveals that kea, like most birds, need a regular intake of natu­rally occurring lipids (fats) to provide eas­ily stored energy. Some montane and subalpine plants, such as snow totara, are rich in vegetable lipids, and it is no sur­prise that these are among the kea’s fa­voured foods. Take away plants like snow totara through burning and grazing, and kea get hungry, whether it is winter or not.

Kea not only faced competition for food from sheep on the high tussock grasslands, but also, from about the turn of the century, increasing competition in the forests and subalpine regions from introduced deer, chamois and goats, which reached plague proportions. Then there was the direct mortal threat of wea­sels and stoats originally brought in to deal with acclimatised rabbits, which had further destroyed the tussock grasslands. More recently, there has been devastation of the forests by possums.

Kea faced ecological disaster on a large scale. It is not surprising they fought back as best they could. They needed the nour­ishment that sheep and other mammals, dead or alive, could provide. Was the “murderous frenzy” of their attacks just a manifestation of hunger? Or was there recognition of an enemy in them, too?

The farmers who had unwittingly ex­posed their sheep to death and maiming knew just what to do. Kill the killers.

In short order, the kea became New Zealand’s Canadian wolf or Tasmanian tiger, Public Enemy Number One, to be exterminated at all costs, shot and poi­soned. A bounty was put on kea beaks, financed by run holders, county councils and the Department of Agriculture. The value varied over the years, but in the 1920s it was ten shillings per beak: five shillings from the government and half a crown each from run holder and county. The ten shillings of 1925 is the equivalent today of $65—a clear incentive to full-time hunting.

No complete record has been kept of kea killed before 1898, but random fig­ures from different high country counties during the 20 years prior to that indicate 20-30,000 were killed. The bounty figures for the period 1898 to 1929 are complete, and show that the government alone paid out £8959 for 54,204 kea beaks. An isolated figure of 6819 beaks for the period 1943-45 shows that the slaughter contin­ued at high levels, probably until the late 1950s. The bounty stayed on until 1970, when the kea was granted partial protec­tion. An estimated total of 150,000 kea killed in the 100 years from 1868 can be easily sustained.

This is one of the worst cases of avicide in history. That the kea survived this massive slaughter, and the continu­ing pressures on its environment, seems little short of a miracle. Better, its sur­vival is a tribute to both its physical resil­ience and a level of intelligence that has enabled it to adapt to a radically altered ecology and to exploit whatever new op­portunities have presented themselves for food gathering, chiefly through human agency.

Regular inoculation of sheep against blood poisoning drastically reduced the number of sheep lost to kea attack. And slowly it came to be accepted that not all kea directly attacked animals. Experience began to show that attacks on sheep were often led by one older male kea—a so-called “rogue”. Remove that bird and the attacks ceased.

In July 1971 at Makarora Station, West Otago, staff found two sheep dead from blood poisoning and “flagged” wool (a staple pulled above the normal lie) on many others. As Alister Thomas, a Makarora shepherd later recounted, “A killer kea was suspected to be at large.” A week later, 37 sheep on a neighbouring property were lost, and nearly 100 saved by injecting penicillin. The “killer” shifted back to Makarora Station, and dur­ing three weeks from the end of August another 68 sheep died from blood poison­ing. On a third farm at that time, 23 sheep died and many others were saved only by prompt use of antibiotics.

Dawn and dusk and then night patrols were set up. Farmers and Wildlife Service rangers staked out the paddocks. For more than a month they tried to lure and execute the rogue bird by using flashing lights, rabbit traps, recorded kea calls and poisoned carcases. Alister Thomas said, “The killing continued, and the cunning of the killer was becoming legend. On September 13, the watchers fell asleep from fatigue and the bird made its biggest strike on 15 sheep in the paddock they slept in.”

A few nights later, the rogue was fi­nally sighted and shot at, but merely lost its tail feathers. It shifted territory and the attacks continued. At last, on October 18, the rogue—new tail feathers sprouting—was shot dead as it tormented a tethered wether. The sheep attacks stopped.


The difficulty of identifying and catching rogue birds, and the lack of hard photographic evidence, meant that high country farmers’ claims of kea killing and damage met with scepticism and sheer disbelief in the wider commu­nity. Could it really be true that this Charlie Chaplin was also a mass mur­derer? As recently as 1985, a veterinarian with high country experience said that a reward he had offered 30 years before for conclusive evidence of kea wounding of sheep had still not been claimed.

By that time the polarisation of atti­tudes was complete. Conservationists and animal lovers viewed the continued kill­ing of kea as barbaric and unacceptable in an age which placed increasing value on New Zealand’s diminishing and unique indigenous wildlife. High country farm­ers stuck to their right under partial pro­tection to destroy kea which molested their sheep. But the high country case for control was not helped by individual farmers who put out colourful fibreglass insulation pads on hillsides so that curi­ous kea would ingest the material and choke to death. Some persisted in keep­ing callbird kea in cages which attracted others so that they could be randomly shot. Too often, sheep losses which might have been more accurately attributed to snowstorm, flood, avalanche, accident, sickness or poor husbandry were laid at the beak of the kea. Too often, the farmers cried, “Wolf!”

From the 1960s, kea also came into conflict with operators in the burgeoning skiing industry. In anthropomorphic par­allel, it seemed that immature males were causing most of the trouble. The young­sters were seen as playful clowns when they rode the wind-driven ventilators on the tops of buses, pushed volleyballs around with their heads or skated down roofs. They quickly became pests when they stripped the rubber from car wind­screen wipers and doors or the insulation from power lines, and emptied out rub­bish containers. Less tolerant skifield op­erators shot the offenders.

Visitors to the mountains who enticed kea with food for entertaining photo op­portunities stoned them when they stole lens caps or gloves. And the kea killed themselves, choked by ingested plastic, drowned in water tanks and poisoned from chewing lead-head nails. But the skifield huts and rubbish dumps had be­come another source of easy takeaway food. Life was hard and dangerous in the fast lane.

A turning point came in 1986 when conservationist pressures and negotia­tions between the then Wildlife Service of the Department of Internal Affairs and the High Country Section of Federated Farmers led to full protection for the kea. In exchange for giving up their legal right to shoot kea, farmers received an under­taking from the Wildlife Service and its successor DOC that its officers would in­vestigate all reports of kea attacks and take action. This would usually amount to accurately identifying problem birds and either removing and relocating or de­stroying them. The same deal applied as a last resort to skifield operators, though these would be encouraged to minimise damage to equipment and buildings by making them safe from the kea’s power­ful, investigative beak. A balance, at last, seemed to have been struck between con­servation of the kea and protection of hu­man high country interests.


Off the road to Paradise, Mark Hasselman’s new Temple Peak Station home­stead looks out to the glory of Mount Earnslaw. One could become drunk with the view of lush river flat pastures running to the foot of national park beech forests and moun­tains sculpted by the ice, wind and rain of eons of nor’westers.

Hasselman is surprisingly relaxed about the fact that, of one mob of 460 merinos put out on the faces last winter, fewer than 400 were mustered in for crutching. About 50 of the dead and miss­ing he puts down to kea attack—ten per cent. That’s high. “Yes,” he says, “it’s been bad the last couple of years, but then some years there have been no losses to keas at all, most of the last 15, anyway. I’m prepared to take a few losses—it’s one of those natural things.”

Iris Scott, along the road at Rees Valley Station, is also prepared to take a few losses. But she maintains, “There’s a more ancient law than the one about protecting the kea. That’s the one that says the shep­herd should protect his flock.” She says that farmers “don’t automatically kill keas like they did half a century ago, but if the birds are killing, then the shepherd gets out there and knocks them over until the killing stops. That seems to have been the only way over the last 130 years to deal with the problem. If we had another method we’d be happy to do it. No-one likes to sit out there in the frost, teeth chattering away, waiting for keas.” Scott, a veterinarian as well as sheep farmer, says that inoculation against blood poi­soning doesn’t always help sheep that are weakened by other infections or stress, nor those suffering from the trauma of massive wounds.

Scott herself works closely with Glenorchy DOC Officer Richard Kennett if she has kea problems. She sees coop­eration as common sense in the intracta­ble conflict between kea conservation and sheep protection. Kennett says he prefers to remove problem birds himself, but notes that, as in so many spheres of DOC’s operation, he is limited by resources. “Re­move” may mean capture and relocation, or execution. Relocation becomes in­creasingly difficult as aviaries and zoos throughout New Zealand come up to ca­pacity with kea, and shifting a problem kea to another territory may simply shift the problem with the bird.

Kennett, Scott and Hasselman were in agreement about how little is yet known about kea motivation and behaviour. The two farmers have experienced their re­cent kea attacks on adjoining station blocks but not elsewhere. Not every year, not all kea—probably just certain family groups that get the taste of mutton. Kennett points to more kea problems in the drier Richardson Mountains, east of Lake Wakatipu, than in the wetter Humboldt Mountains to the west. He also says that almost all kea attacks involve pure-bred merinos. Is this because meri­nos range higher, or because crossbreds such as Perendales are feistier? As the highest country is retired from grazing, will kea problems subside?

Iris Scott demurs, citing the death of a prized ram and several ewes in a roadside valley paddock in May 1992. Contrary to received wisdom, she also states, “I would like it to be acknowledged that keas are not driven to attacking sheep by hunger. That autumn was outstanding for berries. No snow, no need to come down and pick on my sheep. They had thousands of acres of untouched food sources around them.”

Hasselman shares the view that kea do not worry sheep because of hunger “It’s a game, chasing a mob of sheep down a hillside.” He has seen kea divert from their flight path just to stampede the me­rinos, before flying on. The deadly game, it seems, starts out just being playful. But then, says Scott, “when a kea begins to ride a sheep, it is like a rodeo rider on a horse who uses spurs to make it buck harder.” A bucking, charging sheep, mad­dened from a kea’s hacking beak may then fall over a bluff or become cast—easy meat for kea looking for a fast food fix.

Neither Scott nor Hasselman nor Kennett subscribe to the idea that, like wolves or African savanna predators, kea deliberately stalk and round up sheep with the idea of picking off weak animals to feed on. And yet they certainly seek out sheep in their night camps, when most attacks occur. So it goes. The mys­tery continues. As Kennett says “The more I’m learning about keas, the less I know about them.”

At the other end of Lake Wakatipu, and a universe away from sheep, I look over the thronged beginner slopes and the international lunch crowd on the caf­eteria verandah of the Remarkables Skifield. As kea hop among the tables, scavenging chunks of pie and lapping up soft drink, manager Andy Chapman says, “I think their place is very definitely here. You can see that in the reactions of our guests to the keas. There is a symbiotic relationship. Here is one of the few op­portunities that skiers from Japan, the States, even New Zealand, have to get close to a bird in an alpine environment. It is literally a native clown.” He recounts a tale of a kea that flew high with a stolen plastic mug which it then dropped for others to catch in mid-air. The kea re­peated the process in what was recognis­ably an organised game. “The keas that play around the skifield are mostly youngsters,” he says, “developing skills like any human kid.”

What about damage to equipment? Chapman thinks that in the first years of operation, the kea was not given a great deal of consideration. Safety circuit ca­bles on ski lifts were damaged, junction boxes on the towers were broken open and the colourful resistors picked out. The Mount Cook Company’s original re­sponse to problem kea when the Remarkables field opened in 1981 was to have the Wildlife Service remove them. An outcry from conservationists saw birds returned to the ski slopes. Since then “kea proofing” of the skifield has happened progressively over a number of years. Vital equipment has been stoutly sheathed or encased, rubbish bins have been secured, even the rope of flag hal­yards replaced by wire.

As I plug up a steep snow gully through the Remarkables’ crags I reflect, with a lightening heart, on Chapman’s re­marks. They mark a fundamental shift in thinking about kea—an acknowledgment that they have rights in a mountain envi­ronment that has been radically altered for the benefit of humans. At least the rights of coexistence.

Ahead of me, Queenstown DOC Of­ficer Rudi Hoetjes stops and listens to his headphones as he tracks the slopes with a radio scanner. He has picked up a male kea carrying a tiny transmitter. “Sounds like he’s close to the nest site,” he says.

The kea’s eyrie is superbly situated, at the top of a sheer and sunny north-facing rock wall. The only way to reach the nest on foot is by climbing to the top of the crag and manoeuvring down with care over ledges slippery with snow and scree. “We mustn’t stay long,” Rudi insists. We take turns to jam ourselves in a position from where we can peer down the en­trance tunnel. A squawk tells us that the female is home.

By the light of a torch we see move­ment beneath her breast feathers as she squats on a tussock nest. “She’s got chicks!” Rudi grins and waves me away. Time to go before we create further distur­bance. High above on a rock pinnacle, the male keeps an eye on us. Like all good kea males, he ensures his mate and offspring have a regular supply of tucker, often from the rich pickings among the skifield lunch tables. Symbiosis indeed.

On the way down, I take my time, ad­miring the snow-drenched view over the Queenstown-Arrowtown basin to Coro­net Peak, Lake Hayes below, Lake Wakatipu out to the west. I think about kea eating moa, shearwaters, sheep, pies and Coke. I think about kea surviving ice ages, fires and guns. I think about the continuing and relentless pressures on their environment and day-to-day exist­ence. I think, despite people like Mark Hasselman and Andy Chapman, who be­lieve kea are as natural in this world as the sky and the rocks, a flood or an ava­lanche, that its survival from human dep­redation is far from secure. We are still too prone to think that the value of our property—whether sheep or windscreen wiper—comes first. The kea, like so many other creatures, suffers from the arro­gance of human materialism.

I look back up the mountain and see the male kea gliding down to his nest, no doubt to check on his mate and chicks after our visit. I reflect that the kea is a rare bird not for its physical characteris­tics or for its scarcity—as with the kākāpō or takahē—but for its indisputable intelli­gence, and I find it no great leap in judge­ment to claim it as the most intelligent bird around. If only for its flair and flam­boyance and sheer cussedness in the face of daunting odds —yes, its “Kiwi ingenu­ity”—it demands admiration and respect.

I decide that kea are neither clowns nor killers, not monkeys or wolves. They are just arch-opportunists, omnivorous and adaptable. Perhaps that is why we both love them and hate them. They re­flect the best and worst in ourselves.