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The New Zealand Reader

The Kea,* Ok Mountain Parrot

The Kea,* Ok Mountain Parrot.

The kea was first made known to science as early as 1856, by the Hon. W. B. Mantell, from specimens which were obtained from the southern alpine country. Mr. Gould, the eminent naturalist, described the species under the name of Nestor notabilis. A few years later another good example, astray from the higher ranges, was procured at a sheep-station on the Orari, in South Canterbury. The fame of

* [Pronounce kay′-ah, rather than key′-ah.]

page 82this rara avis spread through the province, and soon afterwards skins were got from the back-country sheep-runs; and in a short time museums were able to quote the green parrot as one of the choice and rarer articles in their traffic of exchanges.
In order to convey a correct impression of the kea and its habits, it is necessary to give a brief outline of the features of the country in which it is to be found. Where we have most frequently observed it has been above the gorge of the Rangitata, one of the great snow-rivers. This stream, which derives its source from the glaciers embedded in the gloomy and secluded fastnesses of the Southern Alps, is periodically swollen by the melting of the snow and by the heavy north-west rain that falls during the spring and autumn months. Fed by numerous creeks and tributaries from every converging gully, its volume increases, and it rushes noisily and impetuously over its rough boulder-bed till the junction of the Havelock, the Lawrence, and the Clyde swells its waters into a large river. The lofty, rugged mountains which imprison it present almost every conceivable variety of outline. There are jagged peaks crowned with snow, and countless moraines show where the avalanche and snow-slip have thundered down into the valley below. The river is bordered here and there by grassy flats and hanging woods of timber trees, in which the brown-tinted totara,* the silvery parsley-pine with its purplish points, the small-leaved kowhai, and the soft, bright-foliaged ribbonwood§ contrast well with the dusky hue of the dark-leaved Fagus.|| Far above, dwarf vegetation in all the wonderful variety of alpine shrubs and flowers struggles up the steepest slopes, adorning the frowning precipice and foaming cascade, lending its aid in forming scenes of picturesque and romantic grandeur, in which rich and varying tints of perennial verdure gratify the eye of the spectator with their beauty. This is the home of the kea—amongst holes and fissures in almost inaccessible rocks, in

* [Podocarpus totara.]

[Or celory-top pino of sottlors—tanekaha, Phyllocladus.]

[Sophora tetraptera.]

§ [Lace-back, Plagianthus.]

|| [Beech, usually called birch by settlers.]

page 83a region often shrouded with dense mists or driving sleet—where the north-west wind rages at times with terrific violence. Here the green parrot may be observed, entering or leaving crevices in the rocks, or soaring with motionless wings from peak to peak, far above the screaming kaka or the chattering paroquet; the swift-winged falcon is, perhaps, the sole intruder in its wild domain. At early dawn the peculiar note of the kea is heard, very like the mewing of a cat, and in some of the more secluded gullies it may be noticed throughout the day; but the bird really appears to wake into activity at dusk, being, to a certain extent, nocturnal in its habits. It is scarcely less gre-garious than its congener, Nestor meridionalis;* in the moonlight nights of winter numbers have been observed on the ground feeding. It can hardly be deemed an arboreal bird, in the strict sense of the term.
The rigour of a hard winter, when the whole face of the alpine country is changed so as to be scarcely recognisable under a deep canopy of snow, is not without its influence on the habits of this hardy bird; it is driven from its stronghold in the rocky gully and compelled to seek its food at a far lower elevation, as its food-supply has passed away gradually at the approach of winter, or lies buried beyond its reach. The honey-bearing flowers have faded and fallen long before; and the autumn, with its lavish yield of berries and drupes, has succumbed to the stern rule of winter. Nor has this change of seasons affected the flora of the Alps alone; the insect world, in a thousand forms, which enlivens every mountain-gully with the chirp and busy hum of life, now lies entranced in its mummy state, as inanimate as the torpid lizard that takes its winter sleep sheltered beneath some well-pressed stone. Under the effects of this great change that cuts off the main supply of food, the kea gradually descends the gullies, where a certain amount of shelter has encouraged the growth of the kowhai, that yields a supply of hard, bitter seeds, as well as of the beautiful Pittosporum, with its small, dark seed packed in gluten, and of the black-berried Aristotèlia. These and many other shrubs or trees, such as the pitch-pine and

* [The kaka.]

[The gonus to which the Matipo belongs.]

[The wineberry.]

page 84totara, furnish some of the means of life to this parrot. It is during the continuance of the winter season that we have had the best opportunities of becoming somewhat familiar with it.

Within the last few years it has discovered the out-stations of some of the back-country settlers. Of course, every station has a meat-gallows. The kea has found out and fully appreciates the value of this institution, as occasionally affording an excellent supply of food. The gallows is generally visited by night: beef and mutton come alike to the voracity of this bird, nor are the drying sheep-skins despised. These visits may be looked upon as social gatherings, as it is by no means a rare occurrence for a score of these noisy parrots to be perched on the roof of a hut at one time. It has been before observed that some species of the brush-tongued parrot* affect a meat diet occasionally. The kaka is fond of picking up shreds of fat; and, at some out-stations in the interior, carcases of sheep hanging in the meat-gallows are at times covered with busy groups of beautiful green paroquets, which move restlessly about inside and outside of the carcases, rending away morsels of fat. Thus we have representatives of two genera of our honey-eating parrots that, show a keen relish for grosser food than the delicate sweets that may be gleaned from expanded flowers.

A son of the writer obtained some fine specimens by means of a very simple snare, the noose made of a very slender strip of flax-leaf attached to the end of a ricker or rod. He describes them as exhibiting great boldness and confidence, clambering about the roof of the hut, and allowing a very close approach. When caught, they remained quite still, without any of the noisy fluttering which usually accompanies the capture of birds, even when managed with adroitness. They preserved this quiet demeanour till the noose had been removed. One of these birds was placed on the floor under an inverted American bucket, the places for the handle not permitting the rim of the bucket to touch the ground; the kea quickly took advantage of this, and moved the bucket, raising it sufficiently to effect an escape from its prison.

* [Trichoglossinæ. Not found in New Zealand.]

page 85

On the other side of the river, just opposite to the homestead where this is being written, one station is greatly favoured by these visitors. During the winter season they become a perfect nuisance. On one occasion the hut was shut up, as the shepherd was required elsewhere for a day or two. On his return he was surprised to hear Something moving within the hut. On entering he found it was a kea, which had gained access by the chimney. This socially - disposed bird had evidently endeavoured to dispel the ennui* attendant on solitude by exercismg its powerful mandibles most industriously. Blankets, bedding, and clothes were grievously rent and torn, and pannikins and plates scattered about. Everything that could be broken was apparently broken very carefully. Even the window-frames had been attacked with great diligence.

One more instance of this bird's mischief, or rather, perhaps, love of fun: On a back-country sheep-run, a mule packed with a full load of stores and sundries for one of the out-stations was peacefully pursuing its way, when suddenly a kea perched on the neck of the animal. This unexpected arrival was too much for the gravity of the mule. Startled from its accustomed demure and patient demeanour, it plunged and kicked till it had freed itself both from the kea and from its well-packed burthen, and the contents of its load were scattered in all directions.

Notwithstanding the high character various individuals of the species have earned for occasional indulgence in mischief, several have been kept as pets—not in wooden cages, by-the-by, for a kea has been seen by its gratified captor to eat its way out of such a place of confinement almost as quickly as it had been coaxed to enter into it. Two which had been tamed by a neighbouring friend were permitted to wander at large. They regularly returned to the house for their meals, and then rambled away again, scrambling and clambering amongst the trees and outbuildings. Any kind of food appeared to suit their accommodating appetite, but a piece of raw meat was evidently the tit-bit. On the level ground the bird's mode of locomotion is very peculiar; it is not so much a walk as a kind of hopping jump, which imparts a very odd appearance to its

* [French. Pronounce ahn-wee′.]

page 86gait. But when its strong climbing foot is observed this is not to be wondered at. At a glance it will be seen how inferior is the strength and power of the two inside in proportion to that of the outer toes; the short tarsi* are also unfitted for walking.

In addition to the superior size of the bird and the colour of its plumage, the beak presents a marked contrast to that of the kaka; it is smoother, less curved, and much slighter, with a length of two inches from the gape to the point. The upper mandible at the widest part—that is, in a line with the nostrils—measures five lines and a half in width, with a height of seven lines.

In flight the two species greatly differ, and in voice, and in their breeding habits also. The tree-loving kaka does occasionally make its nesting-place and rear its young amongst rocks in wooded gullies. The kea breeds in the deep crevices and fissures which cleave and seam the sheer facings of almost perpendicular cliffs that in places bound as with massive ramparts the higher mountain-spurs. Sometimes, but rarely, the agile musterer, clambering amongst these rocky fastnesses, has found the entrance of the "run" used by the breeding pair, and has peered with curious glance, tracing the worn track till its course has been lost in the dimness of the obscure recesses beyond the climber's reach. In these retreats the home or nesting-place usually remains inviolate; its natural defences of intervening rocks defy the efforts of human hands, unless aided by the use of heavy iron implements that no mountaineer would be likely to employ.

The eggs, as yet, remain to be described. Young birds have been taken on the Minaret Run, and on the Mesopotamia Station on the Upper Rangitata, as well as in other places. A few years back a prospector, returning to the pale of civilisation from the distant mountain he had explored, brought with him in his camp-kettle or "billy" a pair of nestlings. On his long and solitary march these had shared his fare, and they reached Christchurch in good and healthy condition. The mountaineer has sometimes employed his staff to get out the young; the alpen-

* [Tarsus, the straight part of the "leg" between the feathers and the "foot."]

[A line is 1/12 of an inch.]

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being thrust close to the birds, the mischievous youngsters cling to it with beak and claws, and, keeping a tight hold, they are drawn out with it.

Although comparatively few people are acquainted with the bird, it is not on that account to be considered rare; the reason that it is so little known is the remoteness of its habitat from the centres of population. It certainly appears to be very local in its distribution. A straggler has now and then been observed far from its usual haunts; for in one instance we have a note of its occurrence at the Hororata, in the Malvern Hills, close to the edge of the Canterbury Plains. The beak of the kea can inflict a severe wound; a friend of ours incautiously handling a pet had his hand bitten through by its powerful mandibles.

At the shearing muster of 1868, at Mr. Campbell's station at Wanaka, at Te Anau, and Wakatipu, and possibly on some other runs, it was noticed that many sheep appeared to be suffering from a hitherto unknown disease, which took the form of a sore or scar on the back immediately in the front of the hips. In some cases, the part affected had a hard, dry scab, or merely a patch of wool stripped off; others showed a severe wound—in some instances so deep that the entrails protruded. Every victim had been injured in precisely the same spot, fairly above the kidneys. It did not fail to strike the keen-eyed shepherds that the animals so maltreated were in the best condition. Amongst them were found hoggets, fat wethers, dry ewes, and double-fleeced sheep. Many discussions ensued in the whares as to the cause of these scars and deadly wounds, which thinned out some of the best sheep of the mob, and left others in a more or less sorrowful plight. Many a pipe was smoked out whilst shrewd heads were meditating and speculating on what could have occasioned such an inexplicable and mysterious visitation. At last, a musterer gave it as his opinion that the hurts were inflicted on the sheep by a kind of parrot, a rather tame sort of bird that was to be met with on the tops of the rauges, and that was uncommonly like a kaka. This suggestion was received with ridicule, and his sharp-witted audience overwhelmed the observant musterer with jokes and quaint expressions of unbelief. But the shepherds saw keas visiting the meat-gallows, and tweaking off mutton-fat with their strong page 88beaks. Soon afterwards some of the men actually saw a parrot on a sheep, plucking and tearing wool, and flesh, precisely on the same spot on the back where so many sheep had been found to be fatally wounded.

Now that the men were on a track there was no mistaking, plenty of evidence was soon forthcoming as to the mischievous and destructive propensities of these bold assailants. The examination of the animals so injuriously mauled showed that in the majority of cases very little of the flesh had been devoured; it had been torn away, apparently, not so much for food, but rather as an obstacle that prevented the birds from reaching the kidney-fat. The flocks that suffered most from these marauders were almost invariably tmhose that were depastured on the higher mountain ranges, where the nature of the country was exceedingly rugged. In these regions, their peculiar domain, about the snow-line (for they seldom quit the tops), the birds, although gregarious, do not move about in large flocks. If as many as fifty are seen together, it is of rare occurrence; they are usually scattered in small flights, from a pair up to, perhaps, the number of a dozen individuals. It is no exaggeration to place the extent of their range as covering some millions of acres. It stretches northwards from the towering highlands that enclose the picturesque shores of Te Anau and Wakatipu, through the whole length of the Mackenzie Country, as far as the jagged peaks against the sides of which rest the numerous glaciers whence spring the Rangitata, the Ashburton, and the Rakaia. Their dominion appears to be yet extending, for whilst this paper has been preparing for the press we have heard of keas being found at Grassmere, by the West Coast Road. Further north, it is found at Lochinvar, at the head-waters of the Esk, and towards the sources of the Hurunui.

Sheep, whilst being got out of snowdrifts, are often mortally hurt by the attacks of keas. Especially are these birds prone to molest sheep that carry double fleeces, as though they knew how firm a foothold they could maintain with their grip on such fleeces. When one of these sheep, temporarily exhausted with its exertions in toiling through deep snow under the burthen of two years' growth of wool, breaks off from the mob and leaves the track, desperately floundering into deeper snow-wreaths, the parrots in a flock, ever page 89watchful, as they hover round, soon perceive their opportunity for mischief. They alight close to the spot where the sheep, unconscious of approaching danger, stands gazing fixedly in a state of helpless stupidity. Gradually hopping or moving towards the victim with sonic show of caution, one of the keas at last settles on the rump of the sheep, which, terrified at the strange visitor that thus besets it, bounds away. The bird now rises, only to alight again on the same place; clutching into the wool with its sharp claws, it retains its hold more firmly and tenaciously. In vain the tortured animal, in the direst agony, seeks to rid itself of its cruel persecutor, which boldly keeps its vantage; after running and struggling for some distance, its efforts to escape become feebler. It is at length so hard-pressed that in a few minutes it yields passively to the tearing and searching beak of the kea, and sinks down paralysed with the excruciating torture relentlessly inflicted by its persevering enemy.

The spoil obtained by the sheep-killer is the much coveted kidney-fat; that once plucked out and devoured the remainder of the carcase of the mutilated beast possesses no further attraction; it is quickly abandoned, and the dealer of mischief hies him off in quest of a fresh victim. The majority of the sheep thus attacked die under the infliction, but many recover, though woefully disfigured. When flocks are got into yards a certain proportion bear the sear that tells of the onslaught of the kea, and some of the wounds appear quite dried up, the bones bleached, and the sinews hard and dry. One would be almost inclined to think that the parrots were actuated more by a, spirit of mischief than by the pressure of hunger, as usually a very little of the flesh is eaten, the bird restricting itself to the kidney-fat, for which dainty only it exhibits an appetite. To obtain this much-prized delicacy such a large hole is pierced that the loins are lacerated and torn so that the bones are often exposed, and the sinews "look like fiddle-strings," as a shepherd expressed it. In the months of winter these attacks are most frequent. Newly-shorn sheep are as a rule unmolested, either because the shortness of the wool affords a less secure hold than a full fleece, or more probably because there is an ample supply of food easily obtainable during summer and early autumn. The page 90sheep are neither disfigured nor destroyed during warm weather. Various attempts have heen made to lessen the numbers of the mountain parrots. Advantage has been taken of their confidence and boldness to kill them with sticks and stones; many are snared off the meat-gallows. On some stations hands are sent out to shoot them. The cries of a wounded kea will cause many to assemble round it, and sometimes a number are destroyed on these occasions; but it is found that they grow shy and wary where a gun is often employed, as they are soon "cute" enough to know when a man carries a gun.

T. H. Potts

("Out in the Open," 1882).