Meet the kea. This fascinating bird is one of ten parrots endemic to New Zealand, where it is found only in the mountains of the South Island.
Residing in temperate forests and rocky alps, keas are much different from the tropical parrots you’re accustomed to viewing in popular culture. For example, have you ever heard of another parrot that is at home in the snow?
The olive green birds are highly intelligent and famously playful, earning them the nickname “the clown of the mountains.” New Zealanders are no strangers to the birds’ antics, which include prying open trash cans to scavenge for fatty food, stealing objects from purses, damaging people’s cars, and literally stopping traffic.
But they also have a darker side. With their long, curved beaks, they can rip the wool off the backs of sheep and tear the fat out from underneath. Sometimes, this destructive behavior actually kills the sheep.
Keas are omnivores, so sheep aren’t their only prey. In addition to sheep, rabbits, and other mammals, they feed upon 40 species of plant, beetle larva, human garbage, and even other birds. But, in another dark twist, if they hear shearwater chicks in a nest, they will break into the nest and devour them. Yikes.
Unfortunately for the birds, their predilection for sheep fat put them on the endangered species list, as farmers shot more than 150,000 of them until the practice was outlawed in 1971. Today, fewer than 5,000 birds exist and they continue to face threats in the form of accidental run-ins with humans and equipment, lead poisoning from ingesting old building parts in the mountains, as well as accidentally ingesting poisons used to target invasive species. Their eggs, which they lay on the ground, are also highly vulnerable to being eaten by introduced predators like the common brushtail possum from Australia.