The call of ‘ke-aa’ ringing through the air is deeply evocative of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Kea (Nestor notabilis) are parrots that have adapted to life in the mountains. Their intelligent curiosity equips them well for the harsh conditions in which they live.
Māori encountered kea while crossing the Southern Alps in search of pounamu (greenstone), and named the bird after its call. To some tribes, kea were seen as kaitiaki (guardians). However, there is little mention of kea in Māori poetry and tradition, compared with their more widespread forest relatives, kākā (Nestor meridionalis).
As kea fly overhead, they show flashes of the bright red and orange under their wings. Seen from above, their colours are duller – probably to avoid attracting the attention of birds of prey.
The kea’s topside is mainly green with some brown, yellow and red, and blue-green on the outer wings. Juveniles have a yellow cere (fleshy pad above the bill) and eye-rings, both of which are grey in adults. Males weigh around 1 kilogram and females 800 grams. Like all parrots, they have two toes pointing forward and two back.
Kea are endemic (unique to New Zealand), and are found only in or near the mountains of the South Island. Where these are close to the coast, kea may travel down to sea level. They live in high-altitude beech forest and open subalpine herbfields, up into snow country. Fossil remains of a kea found in a cave near Waitomo indicate they were in the North Island during the last (Ōtira) glaciation – at which time the South and North islands may have been joined.
Kea often move about in groups – flocks of a dozen or more are not unusual. Adults and their young stay together for a year. Then young males tend to hang about in groups until they reach breeding age – three years or older.
Numbers of kea
The overall size of the population is difficult to estimate. Kea tend to have a clumped distribution, rather than being evenly spread throughout their habitat. Their tendency to fly long distances in flocks makes them more difficult to count.
Kea are more common in areas of human activity, scavenging for easy food near skifields, mountain huts, hotels and rubbish dumps. This can give a false impression of substantial numbers. In 2021, estimates of the total population varied between 3,000 and 7,000, compared to 1,000 to 5,000 a dozen years earlier.
Breeding and life expectancy
Kea usually nest in cavities among large boulders, logs or tree roots, close to the upper limit of beech forest. The female lays up to four white eggs any time between July and January, and is fed by the male as she incubates them. Males are sometimes polygamous, bringing food to each of their mates at their respective nests.
In captivity some parrot species can live to 80 or older, but the oldest known age for a wild kea is 20 years.