New Zealand Builds Gyms for “Problem” Birds

Candice Gaukel Andrews March 27, 2018 3

The endangered, emerald-colored kea is the world’s only alpine parrot and one of its most intelligent birds. The kea was crowned the 2017 Bird of the Year in New Zealand.

In the United States, it often seems, there is only one method for dealing with “problem” animals. Whether it’s Canada geese, grizzly bears or wolves, our first impulse is to eradicate them.

That’s not always the strategy used by other countries, and a case in New Zealand is a prime example. When the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) began to have issues with alpine parrots, known as kea (both singular and plural), officials came up with an inventive way for dealing with them. The birds were moving traffic cones and confusing motorists, so it was decided that what the pesky parrots needed was a roadside gym.

The infamous birds are well-known for their antics and “cheekiness,” and many people believe that they were moving the cones just for fun.

But some experts think they had another, more complex motive.

Playgrounds for prankish parrots

Kea live on New Zealand’s South Island. They are most commonly found in montane forests and adjacent subalpine and alpine zones.

Kea are found throughout a range of about 8,650,000 acres that stretch across the South Island’s forested fjords and mountains. But despite this enormous territory, kea—the world’s only true alpine parrots—are now nationally classified as endangered. From hundreds of thousands of kea once living among New Zealand’s lofty peaks, it is thought that just 3,000 to 7,000 individuals remain.

The endemic, 19-inch-tall kea is olive-green in color with bright-orange feathers under its wings. It has a big beak that curves in a scythe-like manner. Kea are notorious for stripping the rubber from car windshield wipers or meticulously removing the insulation from power lines. And, they are fiercely intelligent.

That brainpower is usually what gets them into trouble. Over the past few years, for example, NZTA staff in the Milford Sound region on the South Island began to wonder why traffic cones were being placed in the middle of the road—far from where they had originally been set—at night after construction workers had gone home for the day. The nocturnally moved cones were redirecting traffic in confusing and dangerous patterns. In an effort to find the perpetrators, footage from tunnel cameras was reviewed. The culprits turned out to be a group of young, male kea.

Some scientists think that kea might be as smart as four-year-old humans—but far more rascally! ©Long Zheng, flickr

Instead of jumping to the conclusion that the birds needed to be banished from the area, conservationists looked for ways to redirect such youthful, avian energy to less potentially harmful ends. Their solution was to set up a “kea gym” by the roadside, with climbing frames, spinning flotation devices, ladders and swings to attract the birds’ inquisitive and eager minds and distract them from the road. These “toys” are changed regularly to prevent the parrots from getting bored. So far, the gyms seem to be a success and have been used in other parts of the country to dissuade the birds from damaging forestry equipment and from tearing up cars in parking lots.

Researchers at the University of Canterbury are keeping a close eye on the gym-going kea—not for signs of delinquency, but to learn more about what they find stimulating.

Cars and kea don’t mix

Some experts, think, however, that the kea were not just in it for the mischief. There’s the possibility that the clever birds were deliberately moving the cones in order to make cars stop, allowing them to beg passing motorists for food.

Not only do conservationists worry that the birds would then learn to rely on humans for sustenance but that it would also make them prone to picking up other items, such as inedible objects or poison baits. Hanging around roads where they are likely to be hit by vehicles could also devastate their population numbers; in fact, it is thought that dozens of the endangered birds are killed on New Zealand roads every year. Hopefully, the gyms will keep the kea out of harm’s way—and away from humans.

Kea hide bright-orange and barred, yellow-and-black feathers under their wings. The orange feathers can also be seen in the ultraviolet spectrum.

In 2017, the kea was named Bird of the Year in New Zealand. According to Forest & Bird, the conservation organization that hosts the annual competition to raise awareness of the threats currently facing endangered bird species, 68 percent of New Zealand’s birds are “in trouble” and one-third are at risk of extinction.

If New Zealand can find such a creative solution for dealing with its “problem” wildlife, I wonder if we in the United States can learn to be just as open-minded and imaginative.

I wonder if we can find room for designating grizzly grounds and designing wolf wander-lands.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

3 Comments »

  1. Steve Daniels April 9, 2018 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    Love this. Shared with the naturalists group on facebook.

  2. Thomas Sawyer March 29, 2018 at 7:14 am - Reply

    Pretty cool!

  3. Grace Neff March 27, 2018 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    What a great solution to problems caused by birds. Every place that is killing our animals because they are encroaching on property or causing harm should pay attention and devise other methods besides killing to manage animals.

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