The playful, brainy, and destructive kea

January 16, 2012 • 4:01 am

I’m back in civilization for the nonce.  Having seen Matthew’s posting of a playful crow (and yes, I think it’s play), and having read several readers’ comments on the playfulness of the kea, I thought I’d put up a few kea videos. (Thanks to Matthew, by the way, for a terrific job of posting, which I hope he’ll continue for the next week!)

The kea (Nestor notabilis), is an endangered, omnivorous parrot that lives on the South Island of New Zealand.  The bird is famous famous for their intelligence, playfulness, and ability to outwit humans in many ways, which you’ll see in the Attenborough video below.  They are powerful birds with massive beaks, and are known for ripping apart the rubber and vinyl parts of cars.

Here’s a kea rolling a snowball.  One can’t interpret this as a food-related action; it looks to me for all the world like play:

Here’s an Attenborough documentary, showing how smart (and destructive) these birds are.  The demonstrations and scientific tests of their keen intelligence begin about five minutes in:

One famous aspect of kea behavior, which I learned about in college, is their ability to use those beaks to rip open the backs of living sheep, tearing through the wool to snack on the fat beneath.  Long subject to controversy, this behavior has now been confirmed. It’s an example of an “exaptation,” or the ability of an animal to use an evolved trait or behavior to do something completely novel. In this case, a beak evolved for eating a variety of foods has helped it become the world’s only parrot that preys on large mammals.  Here’s the behavior taken from an Attenborough documentary.

Will this lead to the evolution of a carnivorous parrot.  I don’t think so–sheep-fat eating is an opportunistic behavior, and probably can’t provide the main source of food for these birds.  But who knows? We wouldn’t be around when it happens, and many new animal lifestyles begin in this way.

16 thoughts on “The playful, brainy, and destructive kea

    1. We had this mentioned before, but you will find your usage dates from the 1970s whereas the usage Jerry means, is 13th century.
      From the OED- Etymology: Variant (with metanalysis) of early Middle English anes (in the phrases to þan anes , for þen anes), alteration (with adverbial suffix -s ) of ane (in e.g. to þan ane) < Old English anum (in e.g. to þam anum for that one thing).

  1. Perhaps the kea is rolling the snow because it has learned that when the snow isn’t deep, that will expose the ground underneath over a large area and yield more to eat.

  2. This time I agree that it’s almost certainly a play behavior: the bird is interested mainly in rolling the snowball, although sometimes it seems to be looking for something, maybe food, in the snow. Maybe it started as a search for food and then it became a game when the bird became interested in the snowball.

  3. I grew up in New Zealand, and remember hearing of some South Island farmers carrying a “kea gun” (a long-barreled pistol firing a shot shell, I suppose 20 gauge) because of sheep predation by keas.
    We encountered a kea while waiting to travel through the Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound (it’s single lane, so traffic takes turns going to and from the sound). It landed on the roof of one of the cars in the line, looking very much at home there, and I expect hoping for a handout from one of the drivers. [Photos sent to Jerry, since I can’t post them.]

  4. Love the snow rolling! Also fascinating is why we always have to assign a motivation to an animal’s behavior. The act is notoriously flawed but fun in a casual setting. I thought he was either curious or saw the mound of snow and thought he (or she) could somehow roll it to his territory and make use of it. Fun guess, nothing more.

  5. Derek: If someone was firing a shotgun shell from a pistol, it surely was a .410 gauge. I’m probably the only person here who never took a biology class (I’m trying to learn by reading Gould, Dawkins, et al.) but is a gun buff.
    The .410 (despite its numerical designation) is a very nice fit in long-chambered .45-caliber revolvers.

    1. John:
      You’re right that a kea gun is .410 and not 20-gauge (20-gauge would probably have too much recoil to be fired pistol fashion now that I think of it); but it is single-shot with a long smoothbore barrel, 12″+, as this made it not a “pistol” under old NZ law, and therefore acceptable when short-barrel firearms generally were not. Handguns are generally prohibited in NZ, so you wouldn’t find .45 revolvers available. shows one.

  6. Science has answered the “how” question – now we wait for religion to answer the question: Why did the kea roll a snowball?

    The sulfur-crested cockatoo of Australia also loves to pick at gaskets and vinyl bits. The damned birds tear the rubber seal off windscreens and are frequently seen perched on the street lights tearing out the seal. If you’re silly enough to put wooden gabling on the roof the birds will happily tear it apart – it seems to be their notion of fun.

  7. As the Attenborough clip indicates, the kea says its own name (“care” without an r-sound, not “key-ah” – at least by speakers of the language).

    Most New Zealand birds do. This is only reasonable since they were once the dominant Class here.

    The kererū is a (big) wood pigeon.
    The rūrū (morepork in English) is an owl. The kākā is a parrot. Pō = night and the famous, endangered, ground-dwelling, lekking, booming, kākāpō is nocturnal. Riki=small and the kākāriki is small and green, so kākāriki=green. I look out the window at Paekākāriki, the perch of the small green parrot.
    Others are the weka, the riroriro, the kōkako (a crow) and the kāhu (a hawk).
    The kīwī you know. (The fruit is named after the bird.)

    And MadScientist, your damned sulphur-crested cockatoo is a bloody pest over here, driving out the others. And its squawking! When in Rome – at least it could say “sulphur-crested cockatoo”?

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