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Kea

Nestor notabilis

Kea Gallery

About the Kea

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Class: Aves  
Order: Psittaciformes
Family: Psittacidae  
Genus: Nestor
Species: notabilis

The kea is the world's only alpine parrot, and it gets its name from the call it makes while flying: "kee-aa." Unlike most birds, male and female keas have identical plumage—olive green, scarlet and brilliant orange underwings. Known for their curiosity and cleverness, keas have been known to investigate hikers’ backpacks, boots and cars!

Here in our Zoo

Zoo New England is working closely with a team of researchers from Northeastern University to understand the complex behaviors of the kea. Several times each week, our birds are videotaped and analyzed to identify feeding habits, social relations and breeding behaviors in an effort to learn how our kea population compares to keas in the wild.

 

Kea Facts

Appearance:
Unlike most birds, male and female keas have identical plumage—olive green, scarlet and brilliant orange underwings. Their grey-brown upper beak is large, narrow and curved. The Kea’s strong beak makes it a good climber. Moreover, two toes face forward while two toes face backward, enabling the bird to grip branches securely and hold food while eating. The bird’s natural curiosity helps it adapt to new environments. 

Size: 
Weight: 1.5 to 2.2 pounds; males are up to 20 percent larger than females
Length: 1.5 feet

Diet:
In the wild, keas eat insects, other birds, small mammals, carrion, fruit, leaves and flowers. They're also known to forage from human garbage. Infrequently, they attack sick sheep. In fact, though this occurrence is rare, they've been known to maul sheep and eat the fat off their kidneys and liver in times of extreme famine.

Reproduction:
This bird reaches maturity at 3 years. It may be polygamous; one male may mate with multiple females.  Eggs are laid from January to July and have a 21-day incubation period.  Typically, there are two to four white eggs per clutch. The bird builds its nest on the ground under trees, in rock crevices and burrows between roots, which makes them particularly vulnerable to predation by cats, ferrets and opossums. Scientists have found access tunnels from 3 to 20 feet in length, leading to a large nesting chamber containing lichen, moss, ferns and rotted wood.

Habitat/Range:
Lowlands to mountains of the South Island of New Zealand. The Kea is the only parrot who regularly spends time above the tree line.

Life Expectancy:
Average about 7 years.

Behavior:
This bird takes its name from its main call usually sounded while in flight – “kee-aa.”  They also communicate through various "facial expressions" and by fluffing their head feathers. The kea moves sideways when walking. Keas are diurnal (active during the day), generally foraging in the morning and evening and roosting mid-day (they roost more when it's hot). Known for its curiosity and cleverness, the kea often investigates hikers’ backpacks, boots and cars, can steal small items and can even damage car accessories and ski lodge equipment. Consequently, we humans might consider the kea as either a tourist attraction or a pest!

Population Status:
Because of sparse and wide distribution, population estimates are difficult but are projected to be between 1,000 and 5,000. Keas were not fully protected by the New Zealand government until 1986. The years between 1860 and 1970 were a particularly treacherous time for the kea since the government paid a bounty for kea beaks, due to their reputation for killing sheep. During that period, more than 150,000 keas were killed.