Three of the six native species of the parrot family have apparently always had a limited distribution – the Antipodes Island parakeet, the orange-fronted (or alpine) parakeet, and the kea. The last two are found only in the South Island. The kea is primarily a bird of open mountain country and, though perhaps less abundant than either of the two common parakeets (the yellow-crowned and red-crowned), there is no doubt that it is the most familiar of the New Zealand parrots and the one whose habits are best known. “Most familiar” may be taken to have both possible meanings, for no other New Zealand bird can match the kea for curiosity, lack of fear of man, playfulness, and, perhaps, intelligence. This engaging combination leads to behaviour ranging from the merely amusing to the downright unintentionally destructive. Attacking sheep is included among the latter. This is undoubtedly a very rare fault, but many keas are destroyed to pay for the sins of a few. Those people, however, who do not readily accept hearsay for truth, may rejoice that the species seems little the worse, so far, for its persecution.
Keas breed chiefly above 2,000 ft and nests are made in rock crevices. About four white eggs make up a clutch and, although the breeding season is usually said to be winter (most unusual for birds), there are records for spring and summer, so the question of the main season needs to be more fully investigated.
Plumage is mainly olive-green but the under surfaces of the wings are bright vermilion. The most obvious difference between the sexes is that the beak of the male is longer and more curved than that of the female.
Primarily vegetarians, keas nevertheless eat insects, worms, and, when chance offers, meat from deer and goat carcasses. They have a considerable repertoire of calls, most of which are noisy and unmusical. Perhaps the most characteristic is a descending and rather querulous eeee-aaa from which the Maori name is derived.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.