A History of the Birds of New Zealand.
Nestor Notabilis. — (Kea Parrot.) — Native names.
Nestor notabilis, Gould, P. Z. S. 1856, p. 94.
Kea and Keha; “Mountain-Parrot” of the colonists.
superne omninò olivaceo-viridis: plumarum omnium scapis et marginibus nigricantibus: pileo paullò dilutiore, vix canescente: facie laterali magis brunnescente: dorso postico, uropygio et supracaudalibus sordidè cruentatis versus apicem angustè flavicantibus et nigricante marginatis, his imis olivaceo-flavicantibus: scapularibus et tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus, his majoribus extùs vix cyanescente lavatis, remigibus nigricantibus, alâ spuriâ et primariis versus basin cyanescentibus, secundariis olivaceo-viridibus dorso concoloribus: remigibus subtùs pogonio interno versus basin citrino transfasciatis: caudâ olivaceo-viridi, suprà sordidè cyanescente lavatâ et fasciâ nigrâ anteapicali transnotatâ, rectricibus subtùs flavicante tinctis, et pogonio interno citrino vix aurantiaco dentatis: corpore toto subtùs olivaceo-viridi, plumis nigricante marginatis, abdomine dilutè aurantiaco lavato: subalaribus et plumis axillaribus lætè scarlatinis, minimis flavicantibus, angustè nigricante terminatis: rostro cinerascenti-brunneo, mandibulâ ad basin lætè flavicante: pedibus flavicanti-olivaceis.
mari simillima, sed sordidior et plumis nigricante latiùs marginatis.
Adult male. General plumage dull olive-green, brighter on the upper parts, with a rich gloss; each feather broadly tipped and narrowly margined with dusky black, with shaft-lines of the same colour, except on the head, where there is merely a darker shaft-line; ear-coverts and cheeks olivaceous brown, with darker margins; feathers on the sides strongly tinged with orange-red; primaries dusky brown, the outer webs light metallic blue in their basal portion, largely toothed on the inner web with bright lemon-yellow; secondaries greenish blue, changing to olive on their outer webs, dusky brown on their inner, and toothed with orange-yellow; lining of the wings and axillary plumes vivid scarlet, with narrow dusky tips; inner coverts towards the flexure washed with lemon-yellow; rump and upper tail-coverts bright arterial-red mixed with olive, and prettily vandyked at the tips with dusky black, this colour being richest on the middle tail-coverts and changing on the lateral ones to bright olive shaded with red and tipped with brown; tail-feathers olive-green on their upper surface, with a fine metallic gloss, paler at the tips, inclining to blue on the outer feathers, the whole crossed near the extremity by a broad band of blackish brown; the under surface pale olive-green, with the subterminal band less distinct, and broadly toothed on their inner webs with bright lemon-yellow; under tail-coverts dull olive-green, tipped with brown. Irides black; bill greyish brown; lower mandible rich wax-yellow in its basal portion; eyelid and cere dull yellow; feet yellowish olive, with paler soles. Total length 19·5 inches; wing, from flexure, 12·5; tail 7·5; bill, along the ridge 1·75, along the edge of lower mandible 1; tarsus 1·5; longer fore toe and claw 2·25; longer hind toe and claw 2.
Female. Similar to the male, but having the tints of the plumage generally duller, and the dusky margins of the feathers broader.
Obs. The bill is very variable, measuring in one of my specimens 2·25 inches along the ridge, and 1·5 along the edge of lower mandible. In some examples the lower mandible, instead of being yellow at the base, is dark brown, like the upper one, with only a faint line of lighter brown down the centre. This is probably characteristic of the young bird.page break page break page break page 167
I examined a very brightly coloured specimen in the Otago Museum, the markings being unusually distinct. On the upper parts each feather has a narrow subterminal crescent of dull yellow, bordering the black and imparting a very pretty effect. The nuchal collar is heavily margined with brownish black, giving it the appearance of a collaret of looped lace-work. The feathers covering the rump and the short upper tail-coverts are dull crimson shading into green, then bordered by bright crimson and terminally margined, in a deeply notched manner, with black; on the tail-coverts there are generally two bands of bright crimson, and the larger coverts are uniform olive-green with black margins. These margins are very conspicuous on the back and mantle; but the blue on the outer webs of the primaries is less vivid than in many other specimens I have seen. Bill dark grey, without any tinge of yellow; the sides of the lower mandible paler grey. (Presented by Mr. Spence, Aug. 1877.)
Varieties. As with the other members of the genus Nestor, individuals vary much in the brilliancy of their tints. In July 1883, Mr. J. H. Berryman sent me the following description of a specimen procured by a friend of his in the interior of Otago:—“Bright canary-yellow, with a few red feathers interspersed throughout the plumage; vivid red on the rump and upper tail-coverts, as well as under the wings. Such a gorgeous bird has never been seen in the district before.”
Remarks, Apart from the difference in plumage, this species differs from Nestor meridionalis in having more pointed wings; it likewise has a longer, slighter, smoother, and less curved bill, without any notch. The subjoined woodcuts will best illustrate the divergence of character in this respect.
The first recorded examples of this interesting bird were obtained in 1856 by Mr. Walter Mantell, one of the early explorers of New Zealand, to whom we are indebted for many valuable discoveries in natural history, and who is now one of the patrons of science in his adopted country. Two specimens, from the Murihiku district, in the South Island, were forwarded by that gentleman to Mr. Gould, who thereupon characterized the species in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society, and figured it in the Supplement to his ‘Birds of Australia.’ Nothing more was heard of the Kea till the year 1859, when Dr. Haast received a fine example which had been caught on Mr. Tripp’s station, near Mount Cook, and forwarded it, preserved in spirit, to Professor Owen. In the winter of the following year I first made the acquaintance of the species on a station near the Rangitata Gorge, where a live one, which had been snared by a shepherd and partially tamed, was frequenting the premises. Of late years, however, owing to the spread of colonization and to the development of a new character in the bird itself, to be presently mentioned, we have become better acquainted with this remarkable Parrot*.
* Cf. remarks on the skeletons of Nestor notabilis and Stringops habroptilus, with illustrative plates, by L. v. Lorenz, SB. Ak. Wiss. Wien, Bd. Ixxxiv. Abth. 1, pp. 624–633, pls. i.–iii.
That distinguished explorer and geologist, the late Professor von Hochstetter, in describing the physical features of New Zealand, gives the following graphic account of the grand scenery in the South Island:—“High, precipitous, craggy mountain ranges, intersected by narrow longitudinal valleys, run parallel to each other from Foveaux Strait to Cook’s Strait. They are connected by transverse ridges and intersected by the deep transverse valleys of the various rivers. In the centre of this range are seen, towering up in majestic grandeur, the peaks of Mount Cook, Tasman, and the adjacent mountain giants, glistening with perpetual snow and ice, to a height of 13,000 feet above the level of the sea, almost as high as Mont Blanc. Splendid glacier streams, lovely mountain lakes, magnificent cataracts, mountain passes, and gloomy ravines with roaring mountain streams rushing through them—such are the charms of a wild and uninhabited Alpine region but seldom trodden by human foot!” But this furnishes only a passing glimpse of our noble southern Alps, with their lofty peaks, capped with perpetual snow, flanked with glaciers of almost measureless depth, and presenting some of the finest mountain scenery in the world. In the deep valleys which divide these upheaved zones of stratified rocks of different ages luxuriant forests flourish, and on the high mountain-slopes there is the characteristic low vegetation, becoming more and more stunted as it approaches the line of perpetual snow. Such are the haunts of the Kea! I have seen it soaring or flying—often in parties of three or more—from one peak to another, high above the wooded valley; but it is more generally to be met with on the open mountain side, flying from rock to rock, or hopping along the ground amongst the stunted alpine vegetation, in quest of its natural food.
Sir James Hector found it everywhere in the snow-mountains of Otago during his topographical survey of that region in 1861–62. As a rule these birds were so tame there that he had no difficulty in knocking them over with a stone, or other missile, when he wanted to replenish his larder.
For many years the Kea ranked amongst our rarest species, and it is not very long ago that a specimen fetched ·25 in the London market. But all this is changed, and, although still of very rare occurrence in the northern parts of the South Island, and quite unknown in the North Island, it has become, as will presently appear, an absolute pest in the middle and southern districts.
At the heads of all the principal rivers in the provincial district of Canterbury it is comparatively common; and especially near the sources of the Rangitata river.
* “The rigour of a hard winter, when the whole face of the alpine country is changed so as to be scarcely recognizable under a deep canopy of snow, is not without its influence on the habits of this hardy bird. It is then driven from its stronghold in the rocky gully, and compelled to seek its food at a far less 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; the season that succeeded, with its lavish yield of berries, and drupes that gaily decked the close-growing Coprosmas, the trailing Paimelias, or the sharp-leaved Leucopogos, has succumbed to the stern rule of winter. Nor has this change of season affected the flora of the Alps alone; the insect world, in a thousand forms, which enlivened 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 such a change, that cuts off the supply of food, the Kea gradually descends the gullies, where a certain amount of shelter has encouraged the growth of the kowhai that yields its supply of hard, bitter seeds, the beautiful Pittosporums with their small hard seeds packed in clusters, and the black-berried Aristotelia; these and numerous other shrubs or trees, such as the pitch-pine and totara, furnish the means of life to the Parrot. It is during the continuance of this season that we have had the best opportunities of becoming somewhat familiar with it.”—Out in the Open.
When hunting for food in its wild mountain home, it may be seen perched for a few moments on a jutting rock, then descending to the ground to hunt for grubs and insects, or to gather the ripening seeds from certain alpine plants, it disappears for a time and then mounts to the summit of another rock, just as I have seen the Common Raven doing in the higher parts of the Bernese Alps.
On the level ground their mode of locomotion is similar to that of the Kaka, consisting of a hopping rather than a walking movement. Like that bird also, they are semi-nocturnal, exhibiting much activity after dusk and in the early dawn.
The cry of the Kea, as generally heard in the early morning, has been aptly compared to the mewing of a cat; but it likewise utters a whistle, a chuckle, and a suppressed scream, scarcely distinguishable from the notes of its noisy congener.
But the most interesting feature in the history of this bird is the extraordinary manner in which, under the changed conditions of the country, it has developed a carnivorous habit—manifesting it, in the first instance, by a fondness for fresh sheep-skins and other station offal, and then, as its education progressed, attacking the living sheep for the purpose of tearing out and devouring the kidney-fat, and inflicting injuries that generally prove fatal*. This habit, confined at first to only a few of the more enterprising birds, soon became general, and it is a common thing now for whole parties of them to combine in this novel hunt after live mutton! So destructive, indeed, have they become on some of the sheep-runs that the aid of Parliament has been invoked to abate the nuisance by offering a subsidy to Kea-hunters†.
* The first announcement of this strange development of character in the Kea was made in the ‘Otago Daily Times’ newspaper, in the following terms:—“For the last three years the sheep belonging to a settler, Mr. Henry Campbell, in the Wanaka district (Otago), appeared afflicted with what was thought to be a new kind of disease; neighbours and shepherds were equally unable to account for it, having never seen anything of the kind before. The first appearance of this supposed disease is a patch of raw flesh on the loin of the sheep, about the size of a man’s hand; from this, matter continually runs down the side, taking the wool completely off the part it touches; and in many cases death is the result. At last a shepherd noticed one of the Mountain-Parrots sticking to a sheep, and picking at a sore, and the animal seemed unable to get rid of its tormentor. The runholder gave directions to keep watch on the Parrots when mustering on the high ground; the result has been that, during the present season, when mustering high up on the ranges near the snow-line, they saw several of the birds surrounding a sheep, which was freshly bleeding from a small wound on the loin; on other sheep were noticed places where the Kea had begun to attack them, small pieces of wool having been picked out…… The birds come in flocks, single out a sheep at random, and each, alighting on its back in turn, tears out the wool and makes the sheep bleed, till the animal runs away from the rest of the sheep. The birds then pursue it, continue attacking it, and force it to run about till it becomes stupid and exhausted. If, in that state, it throws itself down, and lies as much as possible on its back to keep the birds from picking the part attacked, they then pick a fresh hole in its side; and the sheep, when so set upon, in some instances dies .… Where the birds so attack the sheep, the elevation of the country is from 4000 to 5000 feet above the sea-level; and they only do so there in winter-time. On a station owned by Mr. Campbell, about thirty miles distant from the other, and at the same altitude, in the same district, and where the birds are plentiful, they do not attack the sheep in that way.”
† The following statement appeared in one of the leading newspapers of the colony:—“In one instance a foal was attacked in this manner, and would have died had it not been rescued; in another, 200 out of 500 choice sheep were destroyed by these birds, which are the more difficult to shoot from their nocturnal habits. Two or three runs in wild districts have been abandoned in consequence of the ravages of these harpies. This is a remarkable instance of change of habits, under altered conditions, for, of course, it is only within a few years that sheep have been introduced into the part of the country the Kea inhabits, and there was formerly no indigenous animal for it to prey on. In the summer the Kea lives on honoy and berries. It is in the winter, when these fail, that it descends from the mountains and harries the flocks.” Another newspaper, by way of comfort, adds:—“The Keas have found rivals in Seagulls, which are now to be seen in the Lake Country, Otago, driving away the Keas from the carcases of sheep these birds are devouring.”
On the surgical operation performed on the living sheep by the Kea, an interesting paper was read before the Pathological Society of London, in November 1879, by the distinguished surgeon, Mr. John Wood, F.R.S. He exhibited the colon of a sheep in which the operation known as colotomy had been performed by this Parrot, of which likewise he produced a skin, both specimens having been sent to him for that purpose by Dr. De Latour of Otago. Mr. Wood was informed by his correspondent that when the sheep are assembled, wounds resulting from the Kea’s “vivisection” are often found on them, and not unfrequently the victims present an artificial anus—a fistulous opening into the intestine—in the right loin.
“The specimen exhibited was from a sheep that had been so attacked. It consisted of the lumbar vertebræ and the colon, showing the artificial anus between the iliac crest and the last rib on the right side—just in the place, that is, where modern surgeons perform the operation known to them as Amussat’s; below the wound the intestine was contracted, while it was enlarged and hyper-trophied above. The sheep was much wasted. The modus operandi was described as follows:—The birds, which are very bold and nearly as large as Rooks, single out the strongest sheep in the flock; one bird, settling on the sacrum, tears off the wool with its beak, and eats into the flesh till the sheep falls from exhaustion and loss of blood. Sometimes the wound penetrates to the colon, when, if the animal recovers, this artificial anus is formed; it may be on the left, but is more frequently on the right side*. It has been suggested that the bird aims at the colon in search of its vegetable contents; but the Kea’s carnivorous appetite has been too frequently noticed to necessitate any such hypothesis. This strange phase of development through which the Kea has gone since the European colonization of New Zealand, and the consequent introduction of sheep to islands in which indigenous mammals are almost unknown, by which it has come to prefer an animal to a vegetable diet, was first described in 1871 by Mr. T. H. Potts (‘Nature,’ vol. iv. p. 489); but it was reserved for Dr. De Latour to discover the interesting result which Mr. Wood has just introduced to English naturalists.”— Zoologist, Feb. 1880.
Before the full development of the raptorial habit described above, the penchant for raw flesh exhibited by this Parrot in its wild state was very remarkable. Those that frequented the sheep-stations soon manifested a distaste for all other food and lived almost exclusively on flesh. They took possession of sheep’s heads that were thrown out from the slaughter-shed, and picked them perfectly clean, leaving nothing but the bones. An eye-witness thus described this operation:—“Perching itself on the sheep’s head, or other offal, the bird proceeds to tear off the skin and flesh, devouring it piecemeal, after the manner of a Hawk, or at other times holding the object down with one foot, and with the other grasping the portion it was eating, after the ordinary fashion of Parrots.”
At this period of its history the plan usually adopted on the stations for alluring this bird was to expose a fresh sheep-skin on the roof of a hut; and whilst engaged in tearing up the bait it was easily approached and shot.
* Cf. an interesting article on Nestor notabilis, ‘Zoologist,’ 1881, pp. 290–301; also the figure facing p. 184 of ‘Out in the Open.’ This illustration represents a scene from the alpine country when under snow; a well conditioned merino is attacked by a Kea, and the animal in its terror, rushing hither and thither, has broken away from a small mob of sheep and is undergoing the first experience of torture from the beak of the Parrot.
In connection with the flesh-eating propensity of Nestor notabilis, I may mention a very remarkable case that occurred within my own experience, in which a whole fraternity of caged Parrots took to “cannibalism,” if I may so term the killing and devouring of one another, without necessity, and in defiance of their natural habits and instincts. I had the following Parrots associated together in one compartment of my aviary at Wanganui, viz. two King Lories (Aprosmictus scapulatus), a pair of Rosellas (Platycercus eximius), a pair of Blue Mountain-Parrots (Platycercus pennantii), and a Grass-Parrot (Platycercus semitorquatus), all of them species indigenous to Australia. For nearly two years they lived together on terms of perfect amity and friendship, feeding from the same seedtroughs, often playing and coying with each other, and forming a constant source of attraction by their noisy clamour and the glittering of their rich plumage in the sunlight. One species alone (the last-named) was moody and shy, generally retiring to the highest perch under the domed roof, and disputing its possession with the rest. At length one of the pretty Rosellas met with an accident, which, in part, disabled it in the wing. The attention that it received from its partner was quite touching to witness. The maimed bird being unable to reach its perch, and therefore compelled to roost at night on the lower framework of the aviary, its mate forsook its sheltered perch under the dome and took up its position beside it; and during the day it was constantly chattering to it in a low confidential sort of manner. But this mishap led to a series of disasters that proved fatal, in the end, to the whole company. The Grass-Parrot, still retaining his sulky demeanour, began to persecute the disabled Rosella, and ultimately killed and partly devoured it. There was abundance of grain and other food in the troughs; but the Blue Mountain-Parrots followed suit, and whetted their appetites on the defunct Rosella. Attributing this contretemps to the weakly condition of the victim, I simply removed the mutilated body, and left the murderer in the aviary. On the following morning, however, I found, to my dismay, that he had killed and partly eaten one of the beautiful Blue Mountain-Parrots, and was murderously pursuing the surviving Rosella. I at once removed the author of all this mischief, and hoped to see harmony restored in the family; but the spirit of evil had been fairly roused, and I next found that the surviving “Blue Mountain” had killed the male King Lory and was devouring his body. Then I witnessed another touch of nature; for the mate of the last-named bird fretted and moped, refused her food, and died of a broken heart. Finally, the bereaved Rosella, as if to seek revenge for the murder of his sickly mate, made open war on the surviving female Blue Mountain-Parrot, and succeeded in killing her. I found this valiant little Parrakeet standing on the body of its vanquished enemy, and whistling in the most excited manner. And thus, within the limits of a single week, a group of Parrots that had lived together so long on the most satisfactory terms had, during a contagious passion for killing and devouring, come to utter grief, and only a solitary male Rosella remained! This bird shortly afterwards gained its liberty; and thus terminated my first and last experiment with Australian Parrots. But it must be remembered that this was an abnormal development of character under domestication, or at any rate under the artificial restraints of confinement. The difference in the case of the Kea is that, in its wild and natural state, it readily feeds on raw meat, and seems to prefer that to its proper vegetable diet.
When the Kea first began to frequent the outstations and sheep-yards, it was very unsuspicious and tame. Mr. Potts, Jun., snared a number of them by means of a simple flax noose at the end of a long rod. He describes them as exhibiting great boldness and confidence, clambering about the roof of his hut, and allowing a very close approach, for they had not yet learnt to regard man as their natural enemy. When caught (he tells us) they remained quite still, without any of the noisy fluttering which usually accompanies the capture of birds, even when managed with adroitness. One of the birds caught by him 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, taking advantage page 172 of this, wedged its beak into the space, and using its head as a lever, it moved the bucket, raising it sufficiently to effect its escape*.
The ‘New Zealand Herald’ of Sept. 12, 1880, contained the following announcement, which shows how rapidly the Kea nuisance had spread through the southern part of the country:—
“Mr. D. A. Cameron, one of the oldest runholders in Lake Country, Otago, is throwing up his run at the Nokomai through the Keas, which, if not more numerous, are, according to report, becoming greater adepts at the destruction of sheep. Formerly the birds used to annoy and worry, but now they kill outright. There is not a run which includes mountainous country, but is more or less plagued with the infliction, and on one spur alone on one mountain range in the Wakatipu, a runholder lost no less than 1000 sheep during last year.”
From the KcKenzie country Mr. W. W. Smith reports in 1883:—“The estimated number of sheep annually destroyed by these birds is fifteen thousand. Formerly they attacked only the weak and dying sheep, caught in the snow-drift; but now the strongest and weakest suffer alike, both in summer and winter.”
The war which is now being waged against this Parrot must, in the end, bring about its extermination. On some of the sheep-runs a bonus of three shillings a head is paid to the men for all they kill. Mr. Rolleston informed me that on his own little run at the Ashburton he had paid in one season for as many as 800; and I noticed, as far back as April 1884, a newspaper report that at the previous meeting of the Lake County Council no less than 2000 Keas’ beaks were paid for.
In March 1884, Mr. R. Bouchier, the Sheep Inspector at Queenstown, reported that on a station on Lake Wanaka a mob of hogget-sheep were attacked by Keas, and in one night no less than 200 of them killed. Most of the birds, however, were afterwards destroyed by the shepherds, whose zeal in this work was stimulated by the bonus. The Inspector reported further that at the subsequent shearing hardly a sheep was marked, while the death-rate had been reduced by nearly one half. In the meantime the beaks of 1574 birds had been delivered at his office, for payment of the reward.
It is the fashion for cabinet ornithologists to declaim against the destruction of this “interesting form.” But there is a good deal to be said on the other side. In some parts of the country the Kea nuisance has reached such a pitch that the runholders have been fairly driven off their country. In places where a few years ago only occasional birds were seen they now appear in hundreds, attracted of course by the sheep†. They are most numerous in winter, when, as already explained, they are driven down from their natural home in the mountains by the severity of the climate; and so bold do they become in their depredations, that, as I have been assured by credible eye-witnesses, they will actually attack a mob of sheep whilst being driven to the yards!
* At a meeting of the Wellington Philosophical Society, a paper was read by Mr. Alexander McKay, who related a number of personal observations on the Kea, which went to prove that this bird possesses a high degree of intelligence. The author expressed his own conviction, as the result of careful observation, that the Keas had the power of communicating ideas among themselves. He related an anecdote within his own experience in support of this view. He stated that on “one occasion a number of Keas, after a consultation, delegated one bird twice in succession to untie the knot in a string which fastened one of their number to a pick-handle. This statement,” the report continues, “evoked some discussion. Mr. W. M. Maskell expressed great astonishment that even an intelligent bird like the Kea should know how to untie a knot at first sight; but Dr. Hector, Mr. W. T. L. Travers, and other gentlemen who were present related instances of still more surprising sagacity on the part of native birds.”
† There occurs the following singular confusion of two well-known New-Zealand species (the Kakapo and the Kea) in Mr. A. R. Wallace’s ‘Australasia,’ at page 561:—“Another remarkable bird is the Owl-Parrot (Stringops habroptilus) of a greenish colour, and with a circle of feathers round the eyes, as in the Owl. It is nocturnal in its habits, lives in holes in the ground under the tree-roots or rocks, and it climbs about the bushes after berries, or digs for fern-roots. It has fully developed wings, but hardly ever flies, and has lately exhibited a singular taste for flesh, picking holes in the backs of sheep and lambs” (!).
On the habits of this species Mr. John George Shrimpton, of Southbrook, Canterbury, has sent me the following very interesting notes:—
“While residing at the Wanaka Lake, I received a letter from my brother Walter (of Matapiro) to the effect that you would like a specimen of the Kea or Mountain-Parrot, and any notes of their habits which I might be able to afford you. My time there was so short after receipt of his letter that, although many Keas were killed, I only succeeded in getting one fair skin, which I forwarded to you by mail a few days ago, and trust it has reached you safely. By this mail I forward a water-colour sketch of some young ones drawn from nature by Mr. Huddleston. In the rocky cavern, high up on the mountain, whence these were obtained, were several broods of young ones of various ages and sizes.
“I believe the Kea does not come farther north than the Rakaia River, Canterbury, and is strictly confined to the central range and its spurs as a rule, but may occasionally and will probably be more seen on those hills adjacent to the main range which attain an elevation of five thousand feet and upwards. There is no doubt that, in spite of the war waged against them, they are increasing very rapidly, probably owing to the plentiful supply of food in the shape of mutton which they can get, and to which they help themselves most liberally. Fifteen years ago, when I first knew the Lake country, it was a rare thing to see these birds on the hills even in their chosen home among the snow; but now you meet them in flocks of fifty even, and so bold have they become that they will attack sheep under the shepherd’s immediate care. Not that they were ever very wild; on the contrary, I think they are the tamest birds in New Zealand; and it is their insatiable curiosity that has probably led them to find out the taste of mutton. At first, they contented themselves with tearing up tents, blankets, and sheep-skins, the usual impedimenta of a musterer’s camp. They have now so improved upon that, that nothing less than the primest mutton will suit their fastidious tastes. Though so tame that you can often knock them down with a stick, and apparently so inoffensive, a single Kea will swoop down on the strongest fat wether or hogget, fix himself firmly on its back, generally facing the sheep’s tail, and commence digging his daily meal. Sometimes the sheep runs till exhausted, sometimes contents itself by trying to dislodge its adversary by a series of contortions only, but the Kea troubles himself very little about either; he hangs on till the sheep gives in. He then digs away, carefully avoiding the backbone, till he reaches the kidney fat. This is his choicest relish. His cries soon attract others, and between them the poor sheep is soon fitted for a museum. Sometimes a sheep gets away from a timid or perhaps less experienced workman; but he carries with him an indelible scar. On some stations about 5 per cent. of the whole flock are mustered in at shearing-time more or less marked in this manner, and the death-rate is almost incredible. I have no hesitation in saying that, on the runs bordering the Wanaka and Hawea Lakes, the loss from Keas alone is nothing short of from fifteen to twenty thousand sheep annually, and these the primest of the flocks. Although Keas are seen openly enough in the daytime, there is no doubt they work their mischief mostly at night, a bright moonlight one being preferred. A severe winter, with sheep snowed in, is their great opportunity; and this they avail themselves of to the uttermost. Although, like other Parrots, they are given to anything in the shape of fun or mischief (and, on one occasion they killed a young Kaka, tethered), I have never known them to seriously attack any animal other than a sheep. But as a moiety of them have advanced so far in the course of the last eight or ten years, it is impossible to say to what lengths they may aspire in the future.
“I cannot state for certainty that there are no Keas north of the limits I have here assigned as their habitat: I can only say that I have travelled over a considerable portion of that country without page 174 either seeing or hearing of them. But as to their habits and destructiveness in the neighbourhood of the great lakes south, I can speak from a long and painful experience.”
I have reproduced, on a smaller scale, in the woodcut given on page 165, the spirited drawing received from Mr. Shrimpton, exhibiting a pair of ungainly nestlings in their alpine nursery.
There is a fine living specimen of the Kea in the “Parrot-house” at the Zoological Society’s Gardens, which appears to thrive in spite of the unnatural semi-tropical heat to which it is subjected*.
This bird was received from Dr. De Latour, who sent the following interesting account of it to ‘The Field’ prior to its departure from the colony:—
“A shepherd in bringing down a mob of sheep was annoyed by one of these Keas attacking the sheep while he was driving them down the mountains; being angry, he threw a stone at it and knocked it over. He succeeded in capturing it alive; he did not kill it, and in return the Kea made great havoc with his clothes. However, after cutting its wings and tying its legs together, he brought it down to his camp. There the shepherd broke his own leg, and came under my care, and the Kea came down shortly after. He was in an ordinary cage made of wood and small iron wire. He was only a day and a half coming down eighty-four miles, but in that time the cage was all but destroyed, the wires bent, some broken in two, as though cut with pliers, and the woodwork was reduced to tinder, and it was just a piece of luck that he did not escape. I had a strong cage of galvanized iron and stout wire built for him, and he has now been with me for two years. The cage is a big one, about 3 feet high, 2 feet across, and 18 inches deep, so that he has lots of room to move about in. He is rather expensive to keep, as he generally gets a mutton chop every day; he does not like cooked meat, and will only take it if very hungry; he will not touch beef if be can get mutton, but is not averse to pork. Some say the Keas only want the fat, but this bird takes lean and fat impartially; indeed I find the fat parts often left on the bone, but never any of the flesh. I have tried him with canary and hemp seed, but he does not seem to care for it, only scattering it about as though for mischief, and they are very mischievous. I am told that when they get into an empty hut—and there are many of these huts used only on occasions when the shepherds are out mustering and away from home for some days—if any blankets, tin pots, sacks, &c. are left, the Keas tear the blankets and sacks to pieces, and bend the tin pots until they are useless.
* The advent of this Parrot was thus chronicled in the London press:—“There is now in the ‘Zoo’ a very remarkable bird, the Nestor notabilis, or Mountain Kea, of New Zealand. It is a parrot of strong frame and powerful bill and claws, which were used like those of all Parrots for obtaining a vegetable diet, until the colonists introduced sheep and pigs. As soon as this was done the Kea seems to have abandoned vegetable food, and to have taken entirely to flesh-eating. He attacks sick or dying or disabled sheep, and with his powerful cutting beak opens a passage through the back, and eats the intestines. Even healthy animals are sometimes assailed by the Nestor notabilis, and there are sheep-runs in New Zealand where considerable losses have been incurred through these strangely degenerated birds. The specimen in the Zoological Gardens gave as much trouble to capture as an Eagle, tearing the clothes of the shepherd who knocked it down while pouncing on a lamb, and lacerating his hands. The Kea scorns cooked meat, biscuits, fruit, or seeds, and likes raw mutton better than any food. He will tear the skin and flesh from a sheep’s head after the furious fashion of a Vulture, leaving nothing but the bare skull. He at one time holds the morsels in his lifted claw, after the style of Parrots, and at another grips them under his feet while rending with his beak like a Hawk. This is a very curious example of change of habit, for there is every reason to believe that before sheep and pigs were introduced into New Zealand the Kea was as frugivorous in its meals as most, if not all, other Parrots. He will now eat pork and beef, as well as mutton, and has become, in fact, utterly and hopelessly carnivorous. It is to be feared, after this example, that temptation is often fatal to birds and beasts as well as man. Had it not been for Captain Cook and the English sheep flocks, the Nestor notabilis would have lived and died innocent of crime; but now its bloodstained carcase is suspended outside many a sheepfold near Otago.”
“My purpose in writing has been mainly to acquaint you with the habits of the bird in captivity, and somewhat of what I have learnt of its habits in the wild state; and also to ask you for hints as to sending the bird home should the Zoological Society care to have him.
“I have just now another specimen of a sheep attacked by these birds; it is of even greater pathological interest than the other one which I sent home, for in this case the opening is into the rumen or large stomach; the sheep survived for a long time. There are also several other living sheep that have been injured waiting for favourable opportunities to be sent down. I want one with an opening into the rumen, so as to be able to watch the process of digestion. I think it would be very interesting.”
Although, as already shown, very easily captured, it is difficult to detain the bird against its will. My brother, during his residence in the back Mackenzie country, obtained, at various times, no less than eight live specimens for me; but in every instance they managed to escape, either by eating their way out of the wooden cage, or in some other, unaccountable manner, before reaching their destination*.
On being removed from its cage and fondled with the hand it crouched down and ruffled up its feathers after the manner of an Owl. I noticed that whrlst in the cage it had a habit of dancing up and down in true Nestor-fashion. It seemed very prying and inquisitive, trying the quality of anything within its reach by means of its well-curved beak.
A live one in the possession of Mr. J. Baker, at Waipawa, became perfectly tame and was allowed the freedom of the establishment.
The inference I ventured in my former edition, that, judging from its general economy, the Kea nests in the crevices and crannies of the rocks in its wild alpine haunts, has since been verified, many nests of this Parrot having from time to time been met with, and always in such situations†.
An egg in my son’s collection, being one of two found in a Kea’s nest “under a high cliff at Forest Creek,” is of similar form and appearance to that of Nestor meridionalis, but is appreciably larger, measuring 1·75 inch in length by 1·3 in breadth; it is pure white, with a slightly glossy surface.
* “A Kea has been seen by his gratified captor to eat his way out of a wooden cage almost as quickly as it had been coaxed to enter it. Two which had been tamed by a neighbouring friend were permitted to wander at large. They regularly returned to his 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 bonne bouche.”—Out in the Open. If taken young, however, they are readily tamed and become very tractable pets. Dr. Finsch, during his travels in New Zealand, was accompanied by one which was daily allowed to leave its cage, and could be handled with impunity. I never heard whether Dr. Finsch sent it to Europe, as he then proposed doing, or whether it remained to share the vicissitudes of his consular life in the South Pacific Islands.
† The following account is given (‘Zoologist,’ 1883, p. 276) of an egg obtained by Mr.H. Campbell:—“The specimen, with three others, was taken from a nesting-place, in an almost inaccessible fastness of rocks, high up the mountains near Lake Wanaka. An egg was broken in getting out; two of those remaining have also come to grief. Placed among a series of eggs of the Kaka (N. meridionalis) it can be picked out at once; it is larger, rougher, the surface being granulated, dotted over irregularly with small pits, a very few slight chalky incrustations towards the smaller end. The shell is very stout and thick, exceeding in that respect any examples that I have seen of the eggs of the Kaka. It is broadly ovoid, measuring one inch seven lines in length; in width it is one inch three lines.”