Kea thriving at Wellington Zoo
5 February 2015
Kea thriving at Wellington Zoo
200 years ago, Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot and endemic to New Zealand, numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But from the late 1800s high-country sheep farmers saw them as a threat to their flocks, and a bounty was placed on their heads and a price tag on their beaks. Due to ongoing persecution and threats from introduced predators, their wild population is now vulnerable, and their conservation status was updated to ‘nationally endangered’ in 2013, with only an estimated few thousand birds remaining today.
Most city-dwelling New Zealanders have never encountered a Kea up close. But lovers of these fascinating native birds can still get up close to Kea on the other side of the Cook Strait – by paying a visit to the family that reside at Wellington Zoo.
“We care for five Kea at Wellington Zoo – a pair of adults and three healthy young chicks, hatched in November last year. The chicks have been staying in their nest box, closely guarded by their mother. Now that they’ve fledged, they’ve started to venture out and visitors can see them,” said Philip Wisker, Wellington Zoo Bird Keeper.
Although the chicks have their adult feathers, visitors can tell these young birds from their parents by the distinctive yellow markings around their eyes and upper beaks.
“They’re amazing birds – we’re lucky to be able to care for them at Wellington Zoo and talk to our visitors about why they’re so special.”
Wellington Zoo actively supports the work of the Kea Conservation Trust, a non-profit organisation that inspires local communities to protect Kea. A number of Zoo staff members have volunteered with the Kea Conservation Trust’s field work, including monitoring nests and tracking radio and satellite tagged birds in Nelson Lakes and Arthur’s Pass.
“Taking an active role in the conservation of these precious birds was so rewarding. They’re incredible animals – I love their cheeky personalities and their natural curiosity. You can see in their eyes how intelligent they are,” said Sarah van Herpt, Veterinary Nurse.
Wellington Zoo is also assisting the Department of Conservation with a new project that aims to introduce Kea that have been held as single birds in human care. Puhi and Tihae are two birds that were brought to Wellington Zoo in order to introduce them to each other and socialise them to other Kea.
“Kea are a highly social and gregarious species, so to promote positive animal welfare they live in groups,” explained Sarah.
“Both are older birds – Puhi is 50 years old and Tihae is 32 – and they had previously been on their own for a while. It’s easier for two birds to socialise with each other before being integrated into a larger group.”
Similar introductions with Kea have rarely been attempted, and Zoo staff were unsure how the two would interact. Initial interactions were positive and the birds quickly became inseparable.
“We opened the door between them, and they spent a lot of time sniffing and exploring each other’s space. Then they were sitting next to each other, and started to follow each other around, ”says Sarah.
“As a result of introducing these two Kea, we started to notice new behaviours in Puhi. He relearned to fly, and he’s happier, bolder, and much more confident around other birds now.”
The next step was to find them a home together and, in December 2014, Puhi and Tihae went to Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park in Rotorua.
Following on from this success, Zoo staff will continue to pair and rehome Kea, with a single bird from Te Anau and a pair from Ashburton travelling to the Zoo this year.
In 2015 Wellington Zoo will also open its Meet the Locals precinct, a four-year development of a large area of the Zoo’s land that will be home to Kea and many other New Zealand animals.
Oliver du Bern, Wellington Zoo’s Visitor Experience Manager, said: “Meet the Locals is our love story to New Zealand. Visitors will have the chance to fall in love with the Kea – one of our most endearing and intelligent birds – and learn how we can treasure and protect them for years to come.”
Wellington Zoo is New Zealand's first Zoo, established in 1906, and is Wellington’s oldest conservation organisation. Home to over 500 native and exotic animals, Wellington Zoo became a charitable trust in 2003.
Wellington Zoo became the world’s first carboNZero certified zoo in May 2013.
Wellington Zoo is an accredited member of the Zoo and Aquarium Association Australasia and a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.