Information & Research

 Interesting Information About Kea

Taxonomy (2):
Kingdom:      Animalia
Phylum:         Chordata
Subphylum:   Vertebrata
Class:            Aves
Order:           Psittaciformes
Family:          Psittacidae
Genus:          Nestor
Species:       Nestor notabilis

Nomenclature:   First described by John Gould in 1856 (3).
Nestor:        A wise advisor to the Greeks (6).
notabilis:       Latin for worthy of note (6).
Kea:            Named by the Maori for the sound of their call (6).
Nickname:   Clown of the Mountains (8).

Nationally Endangered:  NZ Threat Classification System List (4).
Vulnerable:  IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (5).

Wild population estimates are only between 1000-5000 individuals, but habitat inaccessibility makes accurate assessments difficult. Some estimates indicate the population may be much smaller. Their numbers are believed to be declining for reasons including habitat loss, poisoning, persecution, predation and competition with invasive species (5).

According to the International Species Information System (ISIS), the number of kea currently being cared for in member institutions is quite low. Unfortunately, the rarity of kea in captivity, as well as in the wild, contributes to their very high value on the black market.

Kea are mainly olive green in color with dark edges on each feather, giving the bird a scaly appearance. A hint of blue is visible on the primary wing and tail feathers. The rump and underwing coverts are colored reddish-orange. The middle portion of the underwing is colored with yellow stripes (8).

Photo by Dave Jenike at the Cincinnati Zoo

Photo by Jackie Bray

Adult Males:      ~850-1000g.
Adult Females:  ~ 750-950g.
Males are approximately 20% heavier than females and their bills are 10-15% longer (3). Juveniles have a yellow coloration around their eyes, upper beak and cere which fades to dark brown by the time they are 3 to 4 years of age (6).

Habitat and Range:
Kea are the world’s only alpine parrot species and are indigenous to the South Island of New Zealand (6). They live primarily in the remote high altitude beech forests and alpine basins of the Southern Alps, most densely located in national and regional parks (3). Kea habitat is very harsh with scarce food resources during winter (3). They have been able to take advantage of human encroachment by feeding at the ski resorts and refuse dumps in their territory. Unfortunately these places harbor many hazards for the kea (3).

Kea are opportunistic omnivores and will eat whatever is available in their habitat. They possess a unique flexibility and curiosity which enables them to find scarce food resources (2). Kea will eat a wide variety of roots, bulbs, leaves, seeds, fruits, worms, and insects. When food is limited and the opportunity presents itself, kea will eat Hutton’s Shearwater chicks and eggs, carrion, and the fat above the kidneys of sheep that were left to overwinter in the high country (2).

Kea sexually mature around 3-4 years of age and nest under tree roots and boulders on the ground. This ground-nesting behavior makes them extremely vulnerable to introduced predators. Kea are generally monogamous, but occasionally males will mate with more than one female (7). The female lays an average of 2-3 eggs which are incubated by her for 3-4 weeks. The male feeds the female while she is in the nest. Once the chicks hatch, the female will regurgitate food to feed the chicks. As the chicks get older, the male will feed the chicks directly (7). Kea have an extended juvenile period and are often dependent on the parents for 4-5 months (7).  Adults show an unusual tolerance toward juveniles, sometimes allowing juveniles to displace them at food sources. This preferential treatment may make it possible for juveniles to survive their first winter (3). The oldest kea in captivity was 50 years old in 2008, but it is uncommon for them to reach over 15 years in the wild (1).

Kea are arguably the smartest birds in the world with abilities that rival primates. They engage in regular play behavior, communicating their intentions with play signals similar to the way primates and canids do (3). They have a non-linear social hierarchy (3), meaning if bird A is dominant over bird B, and bird B is dominant over bird C, bird A is not necessarily dominant over bird C.

Life in New Zealand evolved in geographic isolation in the absence of terrestrial mammals (the only native terrestrial mammals were bats). Many animals evolved to fill ecological nitches that were uninhabited by mammals. Some birds became flightless and/or ground-nesting. The arrival of humans and their introduced species caused an ecological holocaust that continues today (3).

Kea are strong flyers, but spend a significant amount of time foraging on the ground. They play a role in local ecology by contributing to seed dispersal of alpine plants and to the cleanup of carrion (7). Their charismatic behavior has made them a popular tourist attraction, a fact that may contribute to their survival (2).

Between 1860-1970 over 150,000 kea were killed as part of a government bounty system primarily because sheep farmers believed kea were a threat to their livestock (1). Today, kea populations are believed to be rapidly declining. Threats include predation and competition by invasive species, lead poisoning, habitat loss, and human persecution (1). Kea only gained full legal protection in 1986 (2) and fetch a high price on the black market. For every kea sold illegally overseas, it is estimated that 2 to 10 have perished (3).

Listen to an audio recording of their call at the New Zealand Department of Conservation website at:

 Link to NZ OnScreen documentary on kea.

Kea - Mountain Parrot

Link to ARKive Visual Library of Kea.

ARKive - Kea videos, photos and facts - Nestor notabilis

Predation of Kea Chicks in the Nest

Researcher Brent Barrett confirms stoat and possum predation of kea chicks in the nest. The New Zealand Department of Conservation is working with researchers to find solutions to this problem. The discovery was made possible through the use of video surveillance cameras at nest sites.

For additional information, visit Brent Barrett's blog at:

Use of 1080 Poison to Control Invasive Species

Josh Kemp from the New Zealand Department of Conservation describes the use of aerial 1080 poison to help control invasive species. Researchers continue to investigate methods of deployment that provide the least risk and most benefit to native species, including kea.

For more information, visit the NZ DoC website at:

My Projects

As part of my degree requirements I create inquiry projects that contribute to my overall Master Plan Portfolio. Below is a list of some of the projects I have created. If you would like additional information, please contact me.

Spring 2012-Leadership in Science Inquiry:
Co-facilitating the Biology in the Age of Technology course.

Fall 2011-Conservation Science and Community:
Community Conservation Values Measurement.

Using Mapping Technology to Communicate Conservation Messages.

Kea Encounter during the Cincinnati Zoo's Festival of Lights.

Summer 2011-Cincinnati Zoo Bird Show Internship:
Conservation Advocacy, Operant Conditioning and Show Presentation.

Summer 2011-Master Plan in Action:
Cincinnati Zoo Internal Conservation Grant Proposal  (Accepted).

Kea Enrichment Puzzle Project (in cooperation with local school districts).

Spring 2011-Biology in the Age of Technology:
Incredible Kea EcoSpot Blog/Webpage.

Dr. Zoolittle's Spring Break Camp-Kea Training Seminar.

Fall 2010-Primate Behavior and Conservation:
Comparing the Characteristics of Gifted Intelligence in Kea (Nestor notabilis) and Human Children (Homo sapiens).

CITI Human Research Certification.

Summer 2010-Foundations of Inquiry:
Comparing Kea Preference for Plant-Based or Animal-Based Food.

Operant Conditioning Program for the zoo's kea collection.