One of the most enduring memories of a visit to Arthur’s Pass and many other alpine areas of the South Island is the sight of a bright green kea mischievously getting its beak into something, or simply posing for the camera. With their lolloping sideways gait and inexhaustible curiosity, the world’s only alpine parrots are endearing: at backcountry huts you might find kea sliding down the corrugated-iron roofing or pulling at the nails holding the roof on. Be careful where you leave your hiking boots – trampers have been known to wake up to a pile of leather strips and shredded laces.
With these playful scavenging tendencies it’s hardly surprising kea traditionally got the blame for attacking sheep, and for many years were routinely shot by farmers. Recent research seems to indicate kea only attack already-weakened sheep, and shooting has long since stopped as the birds are now fully protected.
These days, however, their greatest threat is human food. These kleptomaniacs can be persistent – you’ll hear the ruffle of feathers, see the flash of red beneath their wings and they’ll be tearing at your lunch just out of reach. But feeding them is forbidden as it reduces their ability to forage for themselves in winter when the summertime walkers have left town, and draws them towards the road where many are run over. As a result, the kea population is estimated to be as low as 1000–5000 birds. For more information visit w keaconservation.co.nz.