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Friday, March 23, 2007

The Mighty Kea


Say hello to my little friend (this is a link to Sylvia Stuurman's website, source of the birdie picture). We have met only briefly, and this lone encounter consisted of me scaring him from his hiding place. He abruptly took flight, soaring up into the sky amidst a chorus of surprised squawks and a small cloud of green feathers and dried leaves.

You see, the friend in question is the cheeky Kea (so-named because they often shout 'keeaa' when taking to the air), a bird native to New Zealand and a member of the parrot species. We met on one particularly cold, wet and blowy winter day back in August, in Wellington’s Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

Kate and Frank, two Americans who were just about to wrap up a three-month working tour of New Zealand, agreed to meet me earlier in the day and invited me along with them on their tour of the Sanctuary. It would be the first trip there for all of us.

And while the weather was bad, we still had a pretty good show put on by the different species of bird present – who if could not be seen, could certainly be heard by all. The Tui was especially impressive vocally, sounding not unlike R2-D2 of Star Wars fame.

Not only were the bird sounds great, but we managed a glimpse of the native Tuatara, an ancient lizard species, who appeared right on schedule in the exact spot on which the signpost said he’d be appearing. I swear it was just as if he was on the payroll! Must be all those nice fat Wetas (spider cricket type things) they keep feeding him that keep the Tuatara’s cooperative instincts intact.

But one of the birds I’d wanted to see most was the kea. I had read about this crafty little bird long before I got to New Zealand, having been warned unfailingly about him by three different travel guides and yet another guide that is dedicated solely to tramping.

You see, the kea is not only a highly intelligent bird, but he possesses a mischievous streak about a mile wide. These birds prize chewy bits of rubber, such as might be found on the windshield wiper blades of your car, or even the rubber skirting around the car windows, serving to keep the inside (and thus you) waterproof.

A kea will happily flap down – right in front of you – onto your car as you park at the head of the trail you mean to tramp. They’ll use their powerful beaks to yank all the rubber off of your wiper blades, then they’ll proceed to chomp whatever other chewy bits are featured on your car. It seems that the more useful and valuable the rubber, the more inclined the kea is to want to destroy it. How annoying, right?

But what fun they are having! They’ll even root through your backpacks, searching out any and all elastic loot that can be destroyed by their powerful beaks. Eating said objects is purely secondary enjoyment, for the kea seems to delight far more in the prospect of playing with things before actually ingesting them. (Kind of like how the cat toys with the mouse before he finally kills and eats him.)

There is one sad consequence to this brash behaviour, however. It seems that lately the surprisingly beloved kea is falling prey to its own peculiar failing. That is, they are suckers for sweet-tasting objects. Believe it or not, the heavy metal lead is rather sweet-tasting, and it is also soft. So it is a double-whammy for the smart but bored kea, whose two chief vices seem to be chewing on the soft and sweet stuff in life.

(There's also controversy surrounding whether or not they are sheep-killers, so you can imagine why they are reviled by some here in New Zealand. But I digress.)

Recently large numbers of keas have been found dead or dying from lead poisoning, a toxicity that leads an animal to destroy its own red blood cells rapidly. Lead also has neurological side effects, and it’s certainly no fun way to go. Ever heard of 'plumbism'? That's lead toxicity. As a completely random aside, it is now felt that this is what caused all those absinthe drinkers to go insane in the membrane, instead of the absinthe itself (and what glorious stuff that is). You see, they favoured sipping their 'green fairies' out of lead cups, so unbeknownst to them at the time, they were slowly poisoning themselves with their drinking glasses. Lead made them loco far more so than the mildly hallucinogenic absinthe could have done.

But again, I digress. It only takes a little bit of lead to be absorbed from the intestinal tract to become fatal, so even if a kea manages to swallow and then pass even the smallest amounts of this soft metal, he is still a potential goner.

Lots of these dead keas are turning up on the south island’s west coast, in part because that is where most of them live, but also because there is a high number of trampers and climbers in this region. Lead comes from all sorts of sources (old buildings - especially on farms - for instance), but some of these keas aren’t even finding it high up in the hills. They’re also ingesting it from around households, and the kea’s unquenchable curiosity regarding humans, combined with the slow but steady expansion of humans into kea territory, are leading to this disturbing uptrend in kea poisonings.

The word is out about this down here in New Zealand, and though I have not (yet) been the unwitting victim of a kea car-stripping or backpack-raiding, I feel certain that even the Kiwis who have had this unpleasant (though comical) experience would not want to see the kea meet an untimely demise.

Shamelessly large is the number of native New Zealand birds that have fallen afoul of introduced predators (human and otherwise) in the past 150 years, not least of which are the Moa and the Huia. Until now, the kea has avoided ending up on this notorious list, but now they are inching closer to it, having just been downgraded to 'Vulnerable', the lightest status under the "Threatened" category.

I don’t want to end this post on a sad note, and by no means am I going to go all ‘activist’ on you and rail against the burgeoning human population or the tragedies of Man versus Nature. Human expansion is inevitable, and thankfully lead is used in fewer and fewer circumstances these days.

I feel good about the kea’s future here in New Zealand, as the Kiwis (the people, not the birds, haha) do not take such matters lightly and no matter which government is in place (Labour or National), they seem to place the welfare of indigenous species high on the country's agenda. New Zealand was a land of few natural predators prior to the first Polynesians' arrival, so it was truly a haven for birds. The moa was a large flightless bird, with unprotected nests, which made it hopelessly easy to be preyed upon by introduced dogs, rodents and humans. Similar dismal fates awaited dozens of other species when the Europeans arrived centuries later.

I also don't think any of these lead poisonings are intentional, although it is ironic that an animal is said to have a ‘lead deficiency’ if it is a nuisance in any way. (Implying that it needs to be shot - bullets traditionally being made of lead, you know.)

Well, I’m sure if someone was cheesed off enough by a kea’s unwelcome visitation upon their precious car, they’d go a more direct route to dispatch of the kea than by just leaving out a trail of poisonous lead ‘crumbs’. They’d probably opt for the more traditional 'projectile' method of delivery instead!

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