Kea Kaha

Date: 10th June 2011

Austrian scientists have discovered one of New Zealand’s rarest native species is no bird brain. The kea is well known for its ability to dissect everything from rental cars to camera equipment at popular tourist spots, and now it’s got another badge of honour.

They’re cute and playful, but they also have a reputation as troublemakers. Keas can run rampant in the high country, attacking cars and generally making nuisances of themselves. But now the native alpine parrot’s revealed another skill – they can use tools even though they’ve never had the need to use them in the wild.

“They live mostly in nests in the forest, nest on the ground, forage on the floor for tubers, roots and grubs,” says the Department of Conservation’s Josh Kemp.
The birds demonstrated their tool technique in an Austrian study, learning to use a length of wood to get to a peanut, hidden inside a cube. The birds were shown beforehand which cube contained food, so they were aiming with skill. But it’s not easy. The kea’s bent beak means it can’t actually see what it’s doing. Researchers say it’s a surprise the birds were so quick to adapt.

“There are a few bird species which are genetical tool users, but the kea is not one of them,” says Vienna University’s Alice Auersperg.

In fact, there’s evidence the kea may have already learned the skill in the wild. DOC workers report the birds have been jamming sticks into stoat traps to get to the food inside. But they could be outsmarting themselves. Population numbers of the threatened species are continuing to fall.

“We’ve got a real problem, only one to 5000 in the wild, that’s no a large number,” says Tamsin Orr-Walker of the Kea Conservation Trust.

DOC workers are now trialling different ways to make the stoat traps kea-proof.

Originally published by Anna Burns-Francis, 3 News

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