The New Zealand Reader
The Kea,* Ok Mountain Parrot
The Kea,* Ok Mountain Parrot.
* [Pronounce kay′-ah, rather than key′-ah.]
* [Podocarpus totara.]
† [Or celory-top pino of sottlors—tanekaha, Phyllocladus.]
‡ [Sophora tetraptera.]
§ [Lace-back, Plagianthus.]
|| [Beech, usually called birch by settlers.]
* [The kaka.]
† [The gonus to which the Matipo belongs.]
‡ [The wineberry.]
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.]
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.
* [French. Pronounce ahn-wee′.]
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.
* [Tarsus, the straight part of the "leg" between the feathers and the "foot."]
† [A line is 1/12 of an inch.]
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.("Out in the Open," 1882).