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Kea Parrots Love to Dismantle Cars

Dear Bird Folks,

Please find the attached image of a postcard my friend sent me from New Zealand. He says the bird on the front is a “Kea,” a kind of parrot. However, as you can see, the bird is clearly standing in deep snow. I’ve always thought parrots lived in the tropics. Why the snow?

– Don, Reading, MA


Your friend is lucky, Don,

New Zealand is one of the best countries you could ever visit. Not only are all the people totally pleasant (well, all except the psychos on their rugby team), the creatures are also friendly. NZ has no tigers, crocodiles, grizzly bears or poisonous snakes, or for that matter, any snakes of any kind. It just has a few annoying bugs and that’s about it. Oh, wait. There is one other thing. NZ has the Kea, a parrot that likes snow, but hates just about everything else. (FYI: You should not confuse the Kea with the car that has those adorable hamsters riding in it. The car is spelled “Kia.” The two names are pronounced the same, but the Keas I’m talking about might eat those adorable hamsters and the car they are riding in as well…and I’m not kidding.)

Living high in the mountains of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, Keas are the world’s only alpine parrots. These hardy birds don’t need palm trees, lush ferns or tropical rainforests to live in. A snow-covered mountainside suits them just fine. (Thus, your friend’s postcard was totally accurate.) They are also one of the few parrots that nest underground, laying their eggs in burrows like, well, Burrowing Owls. Keas are big birds (larger than crows) but not very flashy by parrot standards. They are mostly dull brown/green, but they do reveal a showy, bright red/orange wing lining when in flight. They also have large feet and seriously hooked beaks. And their name is derived from their distinctive “keee-ahh” call. Okay, that’s enough of that. Here’s what you really need to know about Keas.

If any bird is qualified to be one of the X-Men, it might be the freak that is the Kea. They seem to have the DNA of several other creatures. They are as friendly as a golden retriever, as nosy as Gladys Kravitz, as agile as a raccoon, and smarter than just about any bird and many mammals, too. And, oh yeah, they are destructive, wicked destructive.

Usually, when someone accuses a squirrel of being “destructive,” it’s because the squirrel has chewed up one of their birdfeeders. I try to explain that animals damage things in their search for food, not for fun or to be malicious. However, I’m not so sure about Keas. They appear to really enjoy trashing stuff, especially cars, including, ironically, Kias.

I’ve actually experienced the Kea show first-hand. Years ago my wife and I spent a few weeks in New Zealand. I was looking for birds and she, of course, was looking for stores. We stopped at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel, which leads to beautiful Milford Sound. Because the tunnel is narrow, only a few cars are allowed to pass through at a time. Sometimes the wait to enter the tunnel can be as long as fifteen minutes. To help pass the time traveling motorists (aka, tourist,) often jump out of their cars and snap photographs of the area’s many waterfalls. Before leaving home I had read about the Keas’ habits, so I stayed close to our car and watched the show.

As soon as the people walked away from their vehicles, several Keas popped up over the rocks like a small army of Orcs. The first things the birds attacked were windshield wiper blades. They peeled them off like kids eating string cheese. The next victims were the rubber gaskets around the windshields. The gaskets didn’t come off as easily, but they came off. Lastly, the birds went after the radio antennas, bending and snapping them with their can opener-like beaks. (Today, cars no longer have visible radio antennas and I’m sure Keas are part of the reason why.) When the drivers arrived back at their cars, they just stood there scratching their heads, wondering what had happened. I probably could have tried to stop the birds, but who am I to interfere with the ways of nature? Besides, I was too busy laughing.

Cars are not the Keas’ exclusive targets. These birds will also go after the backpacks of hikers, the boots of skiers and the drain spouts of homeowners. And while Keas tend to eat mostly vegetable matter, they will also eat carrion, especially dead sheep. And sometimes they will even attack live sheep. So, here we have a bird that chews on cars, sheep and everything in between, all while living in deep snow. See what I mean about it being one of the X-Men?

Of course, I was only kidding, Don, when I suggested Keas destroyed things just to be evil. Most of the birds that cause the problems are young and are likely only playing. And it appears this playing serves them well, as Keas are among the smartest birds in the world. Researchers are constantly coming up with new and different puzzles for them to solve and more often than not, the Keas succeed. Some conspiracy theorists suggest that the reason Keas assault cars is because they are secretly working for the New Zealand equivalent of MAACO or some other big auto body company. That has yet to be proven…although it wouldn’t surprise me.