Wake Up, This Is Your Kea Alarm

Easter provided an opportunity to hike in the mountainous Southern Alps of New Zealand and to seek out some of the less common birds of New Zealand. We were not disappointed with sightings of some of the endemic residents of the mountains such as rock wren and kea. Five days provided enough time to hike deep in to mountain passes seldom visited. Setting off around Lake Wakatipu we spent our first night in a New Zealand deerstalkers association hut. Reading the hut book I was immediately confronted by the conflict between hunters and conservationists over the use of 1080 to control mammalian predators – like 1080, the comments from both sides were toxic. I wasn’t sure what to write in the hut book, but noted my own observations from the day that birdlife was abundant.

A South Island robin would very much like my bugs
A South Island robin would very much like my bugs (Photo by James Russell)

The Caples valley was treated with 1080 poison in 2014 as part of the Battle for our Birds. As we walked through the mountains and valleys, at every stop we were greeted by the resident New Zealand robin demanding tribute in the form of invertebrates for interloping on his territory. We soon stopped counting robins, they had become what is colloquially known as a ‘trash species’. As we climbed to the saddle we were further rewarded, a pair of rock wrens greeted us with similar misgivings about our presence.

The rock wren wonders why you hiked all the way up here
The rock wren wonders why you hiked all the way up here (Photo by James Russell)

We spent the next night in a small hut, and as we arrived at dusk resident kea noted out arrival, but they were patient as darkness fell. At 5am in the morning the young family (mum and five kids) returned to awake us with general chaos. Pot banging, wood pile rearranging, and so on. They were pleased when we finally stepped out at 6am to acknowledge their majestic presence. Recent research has shown they engage in laughter; I certainly felt they were laughing at me.

Kea politics is complex, or perhaps simple (Photo by James Russell)

This inquisitive nature of kea means they are vulnerable to 1080 poison, which is a serious problem. However, my sense based on the available evidence is that they are more vulnerable to predation by introduced mammals. Clearly this kea family was doing well, and I would like to think this was due to recent pest control in the area, allowing them to successfully raise a young family, without the risk of being eaten alive in their sleep. Others do not share this view though, and focus exclusively on the impacts of toxin use, without considering the other side of the equation – the severe impact of introduced mammalian predators on the native fauna and flora of New Zealand. The evidence shows that on average, the use of 1080 has more benefits than costs to biodiversity.

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Meet the Author
Conservation biologist Dr. James Russell works throughout the world on remote islands and other sites to provide conservation solutions by applying a combination of scientific methods. Follow James on National Geographic voices for regular updates on his own work or other exciting developments in island conservation.