Art. XXVIII.—Notes on the Natural History of the Kea, with Special Reference to its Reputed Sheep-killing Propensities.
[Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, 8th August, 1906.]
The kea (Nestor notabilis) (O, D), or mountain-parrot, is found only in the Middle Island of New Zealand, where it lives among the peaks and valleys of the Southern Alps. When discovered by Mr. William Mantell (O) in 1856 the kea's chief food seemed to consist of insect-larvÆ and berries; however, as early as 1868 it was suspected not only of eating meat, but of becoming a bird of prey of no mean order. Rumours were heard to the effect that the bird attacked and killed sheep for the sake of the kidney and the kidney-fat, which formed its special delicacies.
The first recorded instance, which was published in the Daily Otago Times (J, c), runs as follows: “For the last three years the sheep belonging to a settler, Mr. Henry Campbell, in the Wanaka district (Otago), appeared to have been afflicted with a new kind of disease. The first appearance of this supposed disease is a patch of raw flesh on the loin of the sheep, about the size of a man's hand. From this, matter continually runs down the sides, takes the wool completely off the part it touches, and in many cases death is the result. At last a shepherd noticed one of the mountain-parrots sticking to a sheep and picking at a sore, and the animal seemed unable to get rid of its tormentor. The runholder gave directions to keep watch on the parrots when mustering on high ground. The result has been that during the present season, when mustering high up on the ranges near the snow-line, they saw several birds surrounding a sheep, which was freshly bleeding from a small wound on the loin; on other sheep were noticed places where the kea had begun to attack them, small pieces of wool having been picked out.”
Though this record casts grave suspicion on the kea, it does not by any means absolutely prove that it was the culprit. In the first instance, the bird was only picking at a sore on a sheep's back, just as to-day starlings are commonly seen in the same position; and to say that this fact proves that the sheep was killed by the kea is putting more weight on the evidence than is justifiable. In the second instance, the shepherds saw several keas “surrounding” (notice, not “attacking” or “peck-
ing”) a wounded sheep, and with the uncertainty which existed at that time as to the true culprit it might easily have turned out that some other animal had wounded the sheep, and the keas had only been attracted by its struggles. It seems from later investigations that the sheep had been killed by the keas, but the record here is only on circumstantial evidence, which can never, by itself, satisfactorily prove a scientific theory. In the third instance, these shepherds jumped to the conclusion that because the other sheep had some wool pulled out the keas must have done it. This shows that when men are anxious to prove a point almost anything is taken as conclusive evidence, even though there is not the slightest reason for doing so.
This early record, though not conclusive, is very important, because it points out in what direction the true sheep-killer may be discovered; but before taking this supposition as correct a very exhaustive examination should have been made for several years, to see if further researches confirmed the evidence of these men. However, though nearly fifty years have passed since the record was first published, there has not been one genuine attempt to inquire into the case, and up to the end of 1905 this is the only definite case recorded where a man actually saw a kea picking at a live sheep. Of course, many articles have been written, both in magazines and scientific works, but I cannot find one writer who says that he ever saw a kea attack a sheep, nor is the name of any man given who said that he had seen the bird at work.
It has been since proved that there were, and are at the present time, many men who have been eye-witnesses to the birds' depredations, but from the available records in 1905 not one could be found. It seems a great pity that men of scientific standing should publish in their books, on such paltry evidence, as though it were an undoubtedly proved fact, that the kea had become not only carnivorous, but a bird of prey. I think I am justified in saying that, up to 1905, all the literature that had been published stating the kea was guilty of the crime has been giving to the world as a fact a statement which has never been satisfactorily proved.
If there is anything that wants to be most conclusively proved it is a scientific fact, and as long as investigators continue to publish as true half-proved theories, only error and confusion can be the result. As might be expected from such unsatisfactory evidence, later investigations do not always uphold these hasty conclusions jumped at by early writers.
It is rather surprising to find that no one questioned the weight of the evidence until 1900, when Dr. L. Cockayne, the
retiring President of the Canterbury Philosophical Institute, while reading a paper “On some Little-known Country in the Waimakariri District,” made the following statement: “I have never seen it [the kea] attack sheep, nor have I ever met with any one—shepherd, musterer, or mountaineer traveler—who has done so; the most that my inquiries have elicited is that sheep are found from time to time with holes in their backs, and that keas have been seen hovering around sheep.” A very warm discussion followed, and from that time people have been looking into the evidence. The result has been that there are more people who disbelieve the kea's guilt to-day than there were ten years ago. Dr. Cockayne and his supporters do not state that the kea is innocent, but that at the present time the recorded evidence in not strong enough to condemn the bird.
Let us glance through the most conclusive recorded evidence, and see on what grounds the bird's guilt has been declared proved. The late Mr. T. H. Potts (N) condemns the kea from what appears to be hearsay evidence only. He writes, “Through the kind offices of Mr. Robt. Wilkin the writer has been greatly assisted with valuable notes, acquired by sheep-farmers, owners of stations, shepherds, &c.” Unfortunately, Mr. Potts does not state that any of his informants ever saw a kea at work, or whether the notes were merely the sheep-station rumours, of which a bookful could be collected to-day. Again, he does not seem to have seen the bird attacking sheep, but as his guarantee mentions the names of several men, but there is nothing to show that even these men were eye-witnesses.
In 1878 the Hon. D. Menzies (Q), writing a paper on the kea, is certain of the kea's guilt, but he also does not give his authority, which, however, is evidently some shepherds.
Sir Walter Buller (J, a, b, c; R) gives a complete description of the bird, and also an illustration of a kea attacking a sheep, but again no eye-witness is mentioned, with the exception of a shepherd, who said that a kea attacked some sheep while he was driving them. There is no name given, and so we do not know who the man was or anything about him.
In 1884 Reischek (T, a) wrote an article giving his actual experience with the kea, but though he saw them eating the carcases, and also found wool and fat in their crops, he never saw one attack a sheep.
Mr. F. F. C. Huddlestone (M), in 1891, wrote an account of his experience in kea country, and condemned the bird, but in his account he never states that he saw the sheep attacked by one.
In 1894 Mr. Taylor White (V) accused the bird, but yet does not seem to have been an eye-witness, but bases his conclusions on hearsay, for he says, “One day my brother John came home and said that he knew what caused the holes in the back of the sheep: it was done by the kea. This surprised me greatly, but I soon afterwards had evidence of the fact myself, for when some of these birds had once found out that blood of the sheep was good for food, others were initiated into the performance.” What Mr. White and his brother saw is not stated, and I think that if a kea had been seen attacking a sheep it would be almost certain to have been mentioned in the paper. I have since had a letter from Mr. Taylor White stating that he has never seen a kea kill a sheep.
In February, 1906, at a meeting of runholders held at Culverden, some strong remarks were made about the loss of sheep caused by the kea, and the Wellington Philosophical Society was ridiculed for upholding the statement that at the present time the recorded evidence against the kea was not sufficient to condemn it. However, in spite of all their talk, only one speaker was reported to have seen the kea attacking sheep. The rest all spoke from hearsay; and I have since received a letter from the reported eye-witness, stating that the newspaper had misrepresented his remarks, for he had never said any such thing at the meeting. This meeting was the means of leading many people to believe in the kea's guilt, and yet, when the evidence was sifted, not one man saw the kea do it.
This is the pith of the recorded evidence up to the end of 1905, and not one writer brought forward a reliable instance where a sheep had been seen to be attacked and killed by the kea.
The strongest evidence against the bird was the circumstantial, which may tie classed us follows:—
1. Against the Kea.
The account of the Wanaka shepherds.
Only where keas were known to live were the sheep wounded after the kea's method, and that where they were unknown do instance of this special kind of sheep-killing had been seen.
If sheep had been killed, and the birds in that place were shot, the killing at that spot ceased.
Keas had been seen to fly off the bodies of sheep, and wool and fat had been found in their crops.
Some keas in captivity would eat meat, fat, skins, &c.
This evidence may be sufficient to satisfy the general public, but it is inadequate to prove it conclusively as a scientific fact.
2. For the Kea.
The lack of recorded eye-witnesses.
In many places where keas were known, to live, no sheep had been killed after the kea's method.
Many keas in captivity would not eat meat, &c.
Many of the men who accused the bird were paid for exterminating them, and they would naturally wish the story to be believed.
It was suggested to the writer by Dr. Cockayne that in order to get some evidence that might be depended on all the men who had seen the kea attack sheep should be requested to send in an unexaggerated account of what they had seen, and when this eye-witness evidence had been sifted and arranged some real facts about this interesting bird might be obtained and published.
In response to several requests, kindly published for me by the newspapers, I have received a large amount of evidence from men who live, or have lived, in kea country—namely, musterers, shepherds, head shepherds, managers of stations, runholders, and station-owners. These, it is true, are not trained scientific observers, nevertheless they all live in contact with fact, and it seems to me that we are sure to get nearer to the truth by taking the experiences of men who have spent most of their lives in kea country than those of men who judge the birds mostly from caged or preserved specimens.
To make the evidence as reliable as possible, the following precautions have been taken: (1.) Nothing but accounts from the eye-witnesses themselves have been taken. (2.) Evidence without the writer's name and address has been cast out. (3.) All details, as year, station, &c., have been received in each case, when possible. (4.) The witnesses, if necessary, have been cross-examined by post. (5.) All accounts of keas attacking sheep have been forwarded with a written statement that, if necessary, the writer will be willing to swear to his evidence before a Justice of the Peace. (6.) The accounts that have been received will be filed and presented to the library of this Institute, for further reference. In spite of all these precautions, I am aware that inaccuracies may creep in; but I think that when fifty or sixty eye-witnesses agree in the main facts of the case we may take it for granted that we are somewhere near the truth.
To some people this question will never be satisfactorily proved until some man of scientific standing has actually seen the kea killing the sheep. In order to satisfy these doubters, I should suggest that some sheep should be fenced in on some
station where keas are plentiful, and by getting some one of scientific standing to keep watch, the keas' method of attack could be witnessed in surroundings that are quite natural. In this way, no forcing of starving of the bird would be needful. However, I think I am justified in saying that, as far as human evidence can be relied on, I have conclusively proved that the kea has not only taken to meat-eating, but that it does actually attack and kill sheep for the sake of the meat.
In order to have evidence from both sides I invited accounts from men who believed the kea to be innocent, but I only received one reply. The writer did not want his name published, and told me not to take much notice of what the Stock Inspectors told me, for the whole thing was a bogey. He promised to send me down the names of a number of reliable men who would give me satisfactory evidence to support his side. However, as his list included two Inspectors, and as four other names were marked as doubtful, I did not deem it wise to continue this kind of investigation.
Meat and Vegetable Eating.
If keas, both in captivity and in their wild state, have never been known to eat meat or fat, then this fact would cast grave doubts on the belief that they are the culprits. On the other hand, if the birds, though they are not naturally carnivorous, have been known to eat meat and fat and even relish it, then we have some reason to believe that these parrots maybe guilty of sheep-killing. Many people still believe that these birds are not meat-eaters, but though in some cases this is true, most of the men who have kept keas, or have seen them feeding in the open, say emphatically that they like a meat diet.
There are other birds besides these mountain-parrots that have taken to eating meat, though not naturally carnivorous. Many cockatoos are fond of picking meat from bones, and the white-eye (Zosterops cœrulescens) can be often seen in winter eating meat and fat.
Sir W. L. Buller (J) tells of a number of parrots that took to killing and eating their fellows.
Mr. C. C. Lake, Christchurch, writes saying, “I was given a kea when in Fairlie some two or three years ago, and although I had him several months prior to his death, I can honestly say that never once did I see him refuse meat in preference to anything else.”
Mr. R. Urquhart, Mount Algidus Station, Canterbury, when writing on this question, says, “It is a strange thing, for we have nine keas in a cage, and I can honestly say that they have had nothing but meat to eat for the last two years.”
Mr. Fred Daw, Miller's Flat, Otago, writes of an experience of his when on the Red Mountains, Southland: “The bird [kea] not only made a hole in the tent, but started eating the fat which was hanging on the ridge-pole.”
Mr. George Rutherford, Dalethorpe, Canterbury, states, “I have had a kea on the chain here this last four months, and he seems as lively now as the first day we got him, and his only diet is kidneys, liver, and warm fat. He won't eat much cold fat. He seems very fond of raw carrots, and eats them every day.”
Dr. L. Cockayne writes as follows: “In the summer of 1897-98 I was camped for some weeks on Arthur's Pass, at an altitude of 2,800 ft. During a part of that time three keas lived round the camp, frequently perching on the beech-trees and at times climbing over the tents. These birds fed greedily on any meat which was thrown to them, picking hones and so on. They were by no means friendly with one another, one being especially the ‘cock of the walk’ and driving away the others when they came after the food. These particular birds were extremely tame, and would actually perch upon the long ends of wood jutting from our fire.” Dr. Cockayne adds the following to the above and his other statements about the kea: “All the above is written from memory, and therefore I do not vouch for its accuracy. Observations of animals and plants should be entered in a note-book at the time of observation, otherwise they can only be accepted with caution.”
Others testifying to the keas eating meat are Messrs. W. N. Ford, J. Morgan, J. McIntosh, John McGregor, A. Watherston, H. T. Heckler, P. Dunbar, &c. Without going into the evidence of these men, I think enough has been said to prove that many keas, whether wild or tame, will eat meat and even relish it. Not only does the kea eat meat, but twice it has been seen acting the cannibal.
Mr. J. Morgan, Lake Coleridge Station, writes, “When going up to the Big Basin, Forks, Mesopotamia, one day, a mob of keas came and settled close to me. I knocked one over and cut off its beak and let it roll down the snow-slips to the bottom of the basin. Immediately the mob swooped down on it and started pulling the feathers out as it was rolling down. I was rather curious to see if they would eat their, dead mate, so when going back I went and saw the bird. The mob of keas were still there, kicking up a great fuss, and all that remained of their dead mate was the head and bones, which were picked clean. It could not have been more than three-quarters of an hour since I killed the bird until I saw it again ‘stripped.’ I have seen the same on more than one occasion since, though I never investigated it the same as the above.”
Some of my correspondents have written to say that the keas under their observation prefer vegetables, insects, &c., to meat. These instances are not very numerous, but are, I think, worth while recording.
Mr. A. J. McKay, Geraldine, writes, “I had a kea sent me from the Mackenzie country, and I observed its habits very closely. He would eat flies, spiders, and caterpillars of any description, and was fond of vegetables such as peas and beans in the pod. I tried him with kidney-fat (sheep) and the kidneys themselves, but he would hardly deign to put his beak into them.”
Mr. Gully, Nelson, writes, “I beg to acknowledge your letter, and in reply beg to inform you that we have a live kea in the gardens here. It eats bread-and-milk, sugar, apples, dock - leaves, &c., and since its confinement has preferred a vegetable diet, eating no meat.”
Dr. F. W. Hilgendorf, Agricultural College, Lincoln, gives me the following account of a kea that lives near Malte Brun, Mount Cook: “A plate of meat which was put on a platform was pulled over the edge immediately by the kea, without tasting the meat, and this we could never get him to eat, although he would pick up crumbs of bread.”
Mr. C. V. Rides, of the Christchurch Acclimatisation Gardens, gives the following account of two keas in the aviary, which shows that these birds often like both the vegetable and the meat diets. He says, “We have two keas here, which we have had in a cage for about eighteen months with a hawk, with which they agree very well. Although these birds will and do eat meat, always preferring the fat and suet, they are equally fond of all kinds of fruit, such as apples, plums, cherries, elderberries, green peas, bits of cabbage-stumps, &c., not caring for wheat or maize, such as other parrots are fed on When dead rats are put in for the hawk the keas never attempt to pull them to pieces. I do not think that the information concerning these birds in captivity is of much value as regards their native life; I notice that most birds in confinement lose character to a large extent. Even the wild ducks prefer cakes and buns to the usual wheat and maize, &c.”
From what has been said it can be seen that many, if not most, keas in captivity will eat meat; a few keep to both diets, as no doubt the wild keas do, and others seem to abhor meat and keep to a vegetable or insectivorous diet.
These accounts may at first seem very contradictory, but I think the explanation is that all keas have not acquired the taste for meat; and very likely, if a bird is captured before it has got the taste for meat, it is not likely to acquire it as long as it has a plentiful supply of ordinary food.
At the St. Louis Exhibition, according to Mr. Guthrie, of Burke's Pass, the New Zealand Tourist Department represented the kea as follows: “The kea, a species of parrot that fastens itself to the back of the sheep, picks out the fat surrounding the kidneys, leaving the animal to die a lingering death.” From the accounts that I have received, this description is very erroneous, for the kea does not only eat the kidney-fat, but in many instances the whole carcase is devoured. People who kill the birds by poisoning state that often the difficulty is to find a carcase with enough flesh on to poison. Mr. Guthrie says, “My experience is that the kea prefers putrid meat to fresh. In shooting them, before dying they generally disgorge, and in the hundreds I have seen, over 90 per cent. disgorged putrid meat.”
Mr. Morgan writes as follows: “Some writers say that this bird won't eat dead sheep, but they will, and seem to enjoy them. They will get on a dead sheep and clean every bit of flesh off the bones.”
Mr. Ford, of Pembroke, Lake Wanaka, says, “I was engaged for some time in destroying the keas by arsenic and strychnine mixed. I would go out on the hill in the afternoon and wait about until the sun got weak, as then the keas would gather and make in the direction to where they had mutton I would then follow them up and always find one or more dead sheep killed by them. I would poison the carcases thoroughly, but the trouble was to find a carcase with sufficient flesh to poison, as they devour the sheep completely, leaving nothing but wool and bones. Cases when I have found sheep partly eaten, on coming to them next day I would pick up as many as twenty-eight dead keas near the carcase.”
So sure are the men that the keas eat the dead sheep that for the purpose of killing the birds they often camp near a carcase. Mr. E. Cameron, Pembroke, Lake Wanaka, says, “The way we used to do if we did not find a dead sheep on the ground was to kill one and camp neat it at night. Often as many as fifty keas would come and eat it, and they are that tame that every one could be shot.” From this and other evidence which I have received there seems little doubt that the birds will eat almost the whole of the carcase, and they certainly do not confine themselves to the kidney-fat.
This naturally leads up to the question as to whether the kea's beak, filthy from a recent gorge of decaying meat, does not sometimes cause blood-poisoning in the next live sheep it attacks, and so a very small scar might be sufficient to cause death. Mr. Guthrie, writing on this question, says, “I visited
the camp daily for some time and found newly killed sheep almost every day. Some would be lying dead in the camp without any outward sign of a wound, but on skinning them there would be a spot of bruised blood on the spinal cord. Others would be torn and bleeding from a wound over the kidneys, generally black and swollen, just as if the sheep had died from blood-poisoning.”
Mr. Turton, of Peel Forest, Canterbury, writes, “Others you find with a hole so small that you could scarcely get your finger in—merely a scratch—but they would mope about, and die in a few days. If you skin these sheep, as I have done, you will find that it is as black as ink, and smells something vile. The bird's bill is, in my opinion, poisonous to sheep.”
It seems as if in some cases blood-poisoning is caused, but it certainly is not always so, as is proved by the number of sheep which come into the sheds every year marked with kea-scars, but otherwise quite healthy.
Why so few Keas are seen attacking Sheep.
It has often been asked, If the kea does so much damage to the flocks, how is it that so few people have ever seen the bird at work? The answer to this question is easily found by studying the habits of the bird. It is largely nocturnal, being especially lively in the early morning and the evening, and, if we may take the circumstantial evidence, it appears to do most of its work at night.
Mr. Reginald Foster, “Hasledon,” Christchurch, discussing this subject in a letter to me, says, “I fear, however, that it will be difficult to obtain the evidence of eye-witnesses, because the keas work in the night and very early in the morning. … The work is done, too, pretty high up on the ranges, where the musterer or shepherd perhaps does not reach until 8 or 9 o'clock in the morning.”
Mr. R. Guthrie, in writing to the Timaru Herald, says, “In my opinion the kea, which is of nocturnal habits, does chiefly all its mischief at night or on very dull, foggy days, and never shows its true character in sunshine.”
Mr. J. Logan, of Double Hill Station, Canterbury, writes, “The reason why there are not more eye-witnesses to the ravages of the kea is that the time of its attack is at night or on foggy days.”
Messrs. R. Urquhart, W. N. Ford, and many others give similar evidence.
It can be seen from what these men say that, owing to the time when the kea does the killing, and the distance from the
homestead of the places where the steep are found dead, it is not surprising that so few men have seen the bird actually attacking the sheep.
Among my numerous correspondents, over thirty state that they have seen the keas actually attacking sheep. These witnesses do not consist only of musterers and shepherds, but in many instances they are either managers of the sheep-stations or the station-owners themselves. Summing up the different accounts, the bird's mode of procedure seems as follows: They may attack in ones or twos or in numbers, but usually one or two birds do the killing and the others share the spoil. The keas do not, as some people think, attack the sheep that are in poor condition, but always seem to choose the pick of the flock. The bird settles on the ground near its quarry, and after hopping round for some time it leaps on to its prey, usually on the rump. If it cannot get a firm grip with its feet the movement of the sheep causes it to fall off, but it persists until it has firmly perched itself on the sheep's back. Then the kea begins its operations by tearing out the wool with its powerful beak, and at last gets its beak into the flesh. The sheep, which for some time has been moving uneasily about gives a jump as the beak pierces the flesh, and then begins to run wildly about in vain efforts to rid itself of its tormentor. When, however, the sheep finds it cannot dislodge its enemy it seems to become terrified by pain and fright, and rushes blindly about, usually at a high speed. Sometimes the sheep tears round the flock until it is played out and cowed, when it sinks to the ground and lies with its neck stretched out, a picture of misery. If snow is on the ground, the poor beast flounders about until it gets into a snow-drift, and then it becomes an easy prey to the relentless birds. At other times the terrified sheep, as if making a last despairing attempt to get rid of its enemy, rushes madly forward in one direction, usually downhill, at a terrific speed, quite oblivious of rocks and pitfalls, the kea meanwhile holding on and balancing itself with outstretched wings. Very soon the sheep strikes a rock or stumbles and rolls over and over down the hill, only to get on its feet again and repeat the performance time after time. When the beast stumbles the kea rises on its wings, and settles down again on to the sheep when it has regained its feet. This awful race is continued until, bruised by its numerous falls, utterly exhausted by its death-struggles, and maddened with pain, the terrified animal stumbles to rise no more, and becomes an easy prey to the kea. The blind rushes
often end even more tragically: the sheep in its blind rush often comes to a precipice, and, with the same mad impulse that brought it so far, it leaps over the edge and is dashed to pieces on the ground below. In this case the kea leaves go its hold as soon as the sheep begins to fall, but follows the unfortunate animal in the descent, to satisfy its hunger on the result of its labours. Some writers think that many inexperienced keas kill sheep in this way, even though they may not have intended to.
I will now give some typical accounts from men who have seen the bird at work:—
Mr. Don. Finlayson, late of Glenthorne Station, Canterbury, writes, “In December, 1898, in company with Walter Grieve (now manager for Mr. F. W. Cordy, Hororata), when walking along the edge of Lake Coleridge, at the foot of Mount Oakden (on the Acheron Run), we saw a kea rise suddenly about a chain ahead of us. We walked to the place and found a sheep lying with a hole torn in its back. The sheep was so severely injured that we had to kill it. When mustering in the same year on Totara Hill, up the Wilberforce River, I was walking quietly along, and coming to the edge of a alight depression in the ground, there right at my feet a kea rose from the body of a sheep. I examined the sheep. It was a merino wether, perfectly sound, but had been so severely injured by the kea (a hole had been torn in the sheep's loin, the kidneys were protruding, and some of the fat had been eaten) that I had to kill it.”
Mr. Charles W. Symonds, Christchurch, writing of his experiences while living on the border-line of Canterbury and Otago, says, “While mustering, I have on many occasions actually seen the kea on the sheep's back (loin), and generally three or four keas would be flying round the sheep, which would be running at the tail of the mob. The sheep would run until it was thoroughly exhausted and had to lie down from exhaustion and fright.”
Mr. R. McKenzie, Blackmount Station, writes, “Seeing your request re the kea in the local paper, I write to say that I have seen the kea at work on the sheep's back. The latter was driven frantic by the bird's attack, ran wildly in any and every direction, eventually making a bee-line down a steep slope, and, as if blind, took a ‘header’ over a precipice, more than 100 ft. high, and was dashed to pieces on the rocky and shingly bottom. The kea hung on to its prey until the moment the unfortunate animal left terra firma, when the bird relaxed its hold, but flew down almost on the very track of its prey, when it was lost to view by the writer and a shepherd who was there also.”
Mr. Donald Burnett, Sawdon Station, Burke's Pass, writes, “It was in the afternoon; I was mustering in Boundary Gully, Mount Cook Station, at the time, and had a mob of sheep in hand, and was about 2 chains away, when a kea—one of several that were flying around—settled on a sheep. The beast at first gave a jump or two and then made downhill at a great rate. When the sheep got into motion the bird spread out its wings, and as the pace became faster the wings came together at the perpendicular. The sheep continued its race until both were lost to view, after going some distance through the storm.”
Mr. Thomas Wilson, of Alford Forest, Canterbury, writes, “Some years ago a kea rode a sheep into the woolshed on the Double Hill Estate; I was an eye-witness, and closed the door. The kea was caught, and I killed the sheep, which was badly picked on the back, and the entrails were pulled out just over the kidneys.”
Mr. J. Sutherland, of Benmore Station, Otago, writes, “In 1887 I was keeping a boundary where keas were numerous, and on several occasions I saw them attack sheep. I saw sheep running down the hill with a kea hanging on. I followed after it and found the sheep lying in the gully with the kea tearing away at it. I drove it off. The sheep was not dead, but the wool and the skin was torn and a hole was made in the sheep's back, just above the kidneys, a wound from which it would have died; however, I killed it to put it out of pain.”
Mr. H. E. Cameron, of Longslip Station, Otago, writes, “One day while mustering in the summer-time of 1895 I saw a kea on a sheep's back, clinging to the wool and digging his beak into its back, and a number of others flying about. I went down to the sheep with some other men. Some entrails had been pulled through a hole in its back, and we had to kill the sheep. I was camped at the foot of Davies Saddle (Longslip Station) one foggy day, and at 3 o'clock heard a great screaming of keas, so I went out to see what they were at. On going down the creek a short distance I saw a sheep coming down the face of the hill as fast as it could, with a kea on the hips, and twelve more birds following and screaming. The sheep when it got to the foot of the hill ran under a bank, and the others watching as if waiting for a feed. I went up to the sheep, after throwing stones at the birds. When I got up to the sheep it had two holes in its back; the kidney-fat had been eaten, but the kidneys were lying bare in the sheep. The entrails were pulled out through the hole in the back. The sheep was not dead, but had to be killed.”
Mr. J. H. Bond, of Templeton, gives his experience while on
the Mount Algidua Station: “I saw a kea settle on a sheep and begin to tear away at its back while I was within a few chains. The sheep bolted downhill into a gully, and stood up to its belly in the snow at the bottom, from 3 to 4 chains off. It looked to me as if the kea then drove its beak deep into the flesh; the sheep gave a big jump and stood still. When I went to examine the sheep it had a bad wound just over the kidney, quite fresh in appearance.”
Mr. Hugh McKenzie, of Etalvale Scation, Nightcaps, writes, “In 1884, on Lorne Peak Station, Wakatipu, in the month of July, there came a heavy fall of snow. One morning early myself and two other men went out to look up the sheep; at 10 a.m. we sighted a mob. As we got within about a quarter of a mile of them we could make out a number of keas flying about the sheep, making a great noise screeching. We at once hastened on to the sheep, which were stuck on a point of a spur about 3,000 ft. in altitude. At a distance of 300 to 400 yards we saw two sheep floundering in the snow with a kea perched on the rump of each sheep and at work on the loins. These sheep would be distant from the mob about 80 yards, and fully 20 yards from each other. As we sighted them, however, notwithstanding our singing out and hurrying up to the sheep, neither kea quit his position until we were within 20 yards of them. They, however, did not damage these Sheep enough to cause death, so we came just in time.”
Mr. J. Morgan writes, “On Mesopotamia Station, in July, 1905, one afternoon at 2 p.m., the kea settled on the snow alongside the sheep, and then hopped on to the sheep's back. The kea then started to pull a tuft of wool out above the loins, and then another, &c. Then it inserted its beak; at this the sheep ran into the mob, and the kea just flew off, and when the sheep was quiet again it once more got on to its back and started to use its beak again. At this the sheep plunged downhill into the snow. The kea went through the same performance again. All this occurred inside of five minutes. Of course we did not let the kea kill the-sheep.”
Mr. A. S. Smith, of Fairlie, writes, “The first occasion on which I actually saw a sheep killed was one time while mustering. I noticed two sheep that had been passed some little distance, and while in the act of hunting a dog for the sheep a kea flew down to the back of a sheep, which made headlong down the hill with the bird all the while on its back. After running some little distance the beast stumbled and fell. Then the bird rose to its wings until the sheep got up and continued its race downhill, evidently much terrified. The bird then flew on to the sheep's back again while it ran. This oc-
curred, I should say, three or four times before the bottom of the gully was reached. When I went to investigate I found the sheep not quite dead, but bleating with evident pain, it would appear on account of a hole in its back, close up to the shoulder.”
Mr. A. Wilson, of Pembroke, Lake Wanaka, writes, “I have seen them attack a sheep at midday, when it was quietly feeding, and it would rush away as fast as it could go, until it either tripped itself or fell down exhausted, when the keas that followed it would start picking the wool off the loins. I have followed sheep under these circumstances and found the keas picking them until I drove them away and set the sheep on to its feet again. I have also found sheep actually able to walk about a little, even though they had portions of their intestines pulled out through the hole in the loins and hanging down their sides These, of course, we killed.”
Mr. H. Heckler, of Lumsden, Southland, writes, “I was keeping boundary up the Gladstone Gorge, after snow muster, and was gathering stragglers off the high country, when I ran across about twenty keas. Two of them were on a sheep's back. The balance were flying round him (a stray wether) making a terrible noise. The sheep was going at full speed down the spur. I watched where he ran to and followed him down for about three miles. When I got down the sheep was dead, with two holes (one on each side of the backbone) in him, and most of the mob of keas were picking out the kidney-fat. I crawled to the rock where the poor sheep was lying, and the keas were so busy at work that I killed three with my stick.”
Mr. Andrew Watherston, Ree's Valley Station, Glenorchy, writes of his experience in 1904 as follows: “I was looking out a mob of wethers, and found that the keas had been killing them, and there were eight dead. As it came on a dense fog I had to return to my hut. Early on the following morning I went out to the wethers again. Arriving where the sheep were camped, some time before sunrise, I could hear the keas calling, and following up the sound I got to where there were about forty of them. They had about three or four hundred wethers rounded up. The sheep were huddled close together, and the keas were flying over them and alighting on their backs. When the keas started to pick the back of the sheep it would start to run round and round the mob; the kea would rise, but as soon as the sheep stopped the bird was on its back again. This continued for a little time; the sheep, apparently getting sulky, lay down with its neck stretched out and its lower jaw resting flat on the ground, when it showed no further resistance, but allowed the kea to pick away at its back. I never saw a sheep, after it once sulked, to show any further
resistance. I shot nineteen keas and left the mob, but on looking round I found that they had killed thirty-eight wethers most of them being quite warm and in splendid condition.”
Many more such instances could be cited, hut enough has been said to show the method and the results of the kea's attack on sheep.
The Kidney Theory.
It has always been supposed that the kea attacked the sheep for the sake of the kidneys, and the first man to dispute this, so far as I know, was Mr. F. F. C. Huddleston, of Nelson (M, N). Dr. Alfred Russell Wallace, in his book entitled “Darwinism” (G), after describing the method of the kea's attack, says, “Since then it is stated that the bird actually burrows into the living sheep, eating its way down to the kidneys, which form its special delicacy.” From the evidence of men who have seen many sheep killed and wounded by keas, this statement appears to be erroneous, and of the many correspondents that have communicated with me only one states that the bird eats the kidneys; and later on the same writer says, “I have shot many keas by the dead sheep, and they vomited up fat.” It appears as if, even in this instance, the bird eats the fat rather than kidneys.
Mr. T. Toms, of Richmond Station, Lake Tekapo, says, “I have not examined many sheep that have been killed by keas, but in the ones that I have examined I have always found the same result—the fat has been torn away and the kidneys left. Of course, the kidneys have been found mauled, but they were not sufficiently torn to give the impression that the kea had been eating them.
In three other accounts—namely, in those of Messrs. Donald Finlayson, H. E. Cameron, and C. W. Symonds—the fat was also eaten and the kidneys left exposed and untouched. Now, if the kidney itself was a special delicacy, as Dr. Wallace's book states, the keas, I think, would have eaten the kidneys as soon as they were exposed.
Mr. McKay, of Geraldine, had a kea which would not touch sheep's kidneys. He says, “I repeatedly tried him [the kea] with kidney - fat and the kidneys themselves, but he would scarcely deign to put his beak into them.”
One reason why people suppose the kea to be fond of kidneys is that the keas nearly always attack the sheep on the loin just near these organs, and, as they eat their way through the flesh and fat, people have jumped to the conclusion that they must be after the kidneys.
In looking through the authentic accounts of about fifty eye-witnesses, I cannot find any evidence to support the kidney theory. The reason for the keas always tearing open the sheep above the kidneys can be explained, I think, by the way the bird attacks sheep. All my correspondents with three exceptions say that, from what they have seen, the kea always settles on the rump. Mr. R. Guthrie thinks that they only settle on the shoulders when the sheep is stuck in the snow, but I have an instance where the shoulders were eaten and the sheep was not caught in the snow.
The reasons for the keas always settling on the hind quarters are as follows: Firstly, the rump of the sheep is its widest part, and so it makes a firm platform for the kea to settle on and to get a firm hold. Several witnesses say that it is almost impossible for the kea to keep on a sheep's back unless he perches on this part. Mr. Guthrie says, “It is almost impossible for a kea to stick on a sheep's back while pecking it in any other position than behind the kidneys, facing the head. I have seen them trying to hang on to a sheep's back, but unless they were in the position described they could not stick on for ten yards.” Secondly, when flying after a sheep, the rump is the nearest and handiest part to settle on, and as the birds often have to alight on the sheep while it is running, it is no wonder that the rump is that part chosen. Though keas seem fond of mutton-fat, I do not consider that this is the only reason why they make for the loin. It naturally follows that when perched on the sheep's hind quarters the bird will commence to pick the sheep's back at the handiest part: this, without doubt, will be the part that is under the kea's nose—namely, the loin. Again, the loin is very easy to tear open, owing to the absence of ribs, and this again would commend itself to the bird.
To me it seems that the preceding reasons do more to influence the kea when attacking than the presence of the kidney-fat. Even the first-recorded accounts of sheep-killing mention that the bird attacked the loin, and the only way to explain this is that the kea found the loin the easiest and handiest part to attack. I can hardly believe, as some people do, that by some kind of instinct the kea knew where the kidney-fat was to be found in the live sheep. This latter idea is somewhat upset by the fact that cases have been seen where the flesh around the backbone has been eaten, and the kidney and the kidney-fat left almost untouched.
The kea appears to eat whatever part of the sheep comes first—first the skin and flesh, then on to the kidney-fat. In some cases they do not even eat all the kidney-fat, but begin
to pull out the intestine, and several sheep have been found alive with these organs protruding. Mr. A. Wilson says, “One day I came suddenly upon two or three keas, busy picking at the loin of what I supposed to be a dead sheep. There was a hole right through the sheep's back, and the birds were putting their heads right through to the inside of the sheep and pulling out portions of the intestine, but I cannot say if they are them or not. I then went over, and to my surprise I found that the sheep was not dead, so I killed it to put it out of pain.”
It is evident that these birds do not mind what part they attack as long as they get something to eat, and when a sheep is buried in the snow they go for the handiest part. Mr. E. Cameron says, “A snow-slip carried some sheep with it. I found the sheep stuck in the snow, where it landed, still alive, with its hind leg eaten to the bone, and half a dozen keas tearing away at him.”
I think that the theory about the bird killing the sheep for the kidney alone is entirely wrong, and I doubt very much if the kidneys are in any way the source of attraction. The birds certainly do not leave the sheep to die a lingering death while their hunger is unappeased, unless they are disturbed.
As to the kidney-fat theory, though this has some evidence to support it, I think that it is mostly because these parts are easiest to get at. The very fact that the keas eat all parts of a carcase except the wool and bones rather weakens this theory.
How the Habit was acquired.
We now come to the interesting question as to how the kea acquired the habit of killing sheep and eating the carcases. This can never be completely answered, but there are several theories which are well worth considering, as they throw a certain amount of light on the reason for the bird's change of diet.
1. The “Vegetable Sheep” Theory.—This is certainly the most popular, though it has very little to recommend it. The supporters of this theory suppose that the kea had been in the habit of tearing open the “vegetable sheep” (Haastia pulvinaris and Raoulia eximia) in search of grubs, which are supposed to live in these peculiar plants. They are found especially in the northern half of the Middle Island, at an altitude of from 4,600 ft. to 6,000 ft., and in external appearance they somewhat resemble a sheep, growing as they do in the form of cushions, often as large as sofas, and the whole surface having a woolly appearance. It is supposed that when the
sheep first wandered into the keas' domains the birds mistook them for the woolly-like plants, and, with the idea of digging out the grubs, they began to tear open the skin of the sheep. In this way the keas are supposed to have acquired the method of killing the sheep and eating the flesh.
This all sounds very feasible, but on further investigation it is found that the true facts do not support the theory.
Firstly, where the keas were first known to attack sheep—namely, around Lake Wanaka—the “vegetable sheep” do not, according to Dr. Cockayne, grow to such a size that they might be mistaken for sheep; in fact, Raoulia eximia does not occur there at all, and many mosses, &c., are often as conspicuous as the Otago species of Raoulia. The true “vegetable sheep” (Haastia pulvinaris) does not even come as far south as Canterbury, and Raoulia eximia does not go farther south than Mount Ida in Central Otago, its only known Otago habitat. Therefore it appears that where the kea first acquired the habit of killing sheep the “vegetable sheep” is practically unknown.
Secondly, I have never found any grubs in the “vegetable sheep,” though I have pulled many up, and I have read and heard of no one who has seen grubs in these plants of such a size or numerous enough to attract the kea. The only supposed reference that I can find is in an article by the Hon. Dr. Menzies, M.L.C. (Q), in 1878. He says, “They suppose that these birds [keas] formerly fed chiefly on berries and the large white grubs abounding in the mossy vegetation on the hills.” Whether Dr. Menzies, or the shepherds from whom he received his information, mistook the “vegetable sheep” for a lichen or moss, as many people do, I cannot say.
Thirdly, when keas first attacked sheep, and up to the present day, they seemed to confine their attacks to the shoulder or rump, the latter in preference. Now, if the keas were in the first instances looking for grubs, then they would almost be sure to work right along the whole length of the back; but in the accounts that I have seen this is certainly not the case.
Fourthly, if the keas feed on these grubs that are supposed to live in the “vegetable sheep,” one would expect to hear of the plant being found in a partly torn-up condition. However, I can find no instance of the plants being seen in this condition, and, though I have been upon the ranges where keas and “vegetable sheep” are both numerous, I have always found the plants intact.
It seems to me that unless further evidence is forthcoming to support this theory it must be left out of consideration.
2. The Curiosity Theory.—Some writers think that it is nothing but the kea's insatiable curiosity and destructive-
ness that has got it into the habit of sheep-killing. Taking into account the bird's love of investigating anything that is at all strange, it is suggested that when the sheep first appeared in the birds' domains they became at once the centre of attraction. The keas would, no doubt, walk round the sheep and inspect it, and finally hop on to the animal's back. When the sheep commenced to run the bird would most likely fall off, but by repeated attempts it would at last find the way to hold on. Once on the sheep's back, the kea most naturally would begin to pull out the wool and finally find his way down to the flesh. In this way he would soon find out how to get food from a living sheep.
Again, if a number of sheep were half buried in the snow, their position would be quite strange enough to attract the keas, and with their natural love of tearing they would soon find their way to the animal's flesh.
It seems to me that this theory has much in its favour, and may account to some extent for the bird's change of diet.
3. The Hunger Theory. — The supporters of this theory suggest that it was the lack of ordinary food that caused the kea to attack sheep. They say that when the ground was covered with snow and frozen hard the birds would have a difficulty in finding sufficient food. Being pressed by hunger, they would visit the meat-gallows at the homesteads and feed on the meat, skins, offal, &c., and in this way they would soon acquire a liking for meat. Having once acquired the taste, they would next take to eating dead sheep or sheep caught in the snow, and finally take to tackling the live animals.
4. The Maggot Theory.—This is a slight modification of the hunger theory, and was first suggested by Dr. Menzies (Q) in 1878. He says, “They suppose that these birds formerly fed chiefly on berries and the large white grubs abounding in mossy vegetation on the hills, and that after the country was stocked they—first by feeding on maggots and insects on dead sheep, and afterwards on dead animals—acquired not only the taste for meat, but also a discrimination of the choice parts. By-and-by they attacked living sheep, and their upper mandible enabled them quickly to tear open the skin.”
Reischek (T, a), in 1885, supports this theory, and says, “My opinion is that these birds became carnivorous through being numerous when sheep were introduced, and feeding on maggots which soon appear on carcases of sheep dying on the runs, and have thus probably acquired such a liking for the fatty matter that it has emboldened them to attack live sheep.”
This theory seems to have much in favour of it, especially when we remember that the kea is naturally insectivorous.
Again, the very fact that birds seem fond of dead carcases rather supports this theory.
It is, of course, impossible to say which theory is nearest the truth, but I think that there is no doubt that the main factors that caused the keas to change their diet and become birds of prey are expressed in the last three theories.
The Time of Attack.
It would be unwise to say in what month of the year the keas are most destructive to the flocks, because all the sheep that are killed are not found, and naturally when musterers are out on the ranges they will see more results of the keas' work than when they remain, on the homestead. From the records that I have received, they seem to attack mostly in the winter and the spring, and frequently at midsummer.
There are several reasons which may account for their attacking in winter. Firstly, when the ground is covered with snow, or frozen hard, the birds will have much difficulty in finding sufficient food, and hunger, no doubt, would make them ferocious. Secondly, the sheep are made an easier prey owing to the depth of the snow, and often they are buried in it, so as to be almost unable to move, and so would give the birds very little trouble.
In early spring the climatic conditions are, if anything, intensified, and the ordinary food is scarcer still. Besides, it is the kea's nesting-time, and the extra work of sitting, and the feeding of the young birds, would make the parents more hungry and daring. During the late spring, when their ordinary food would be more accessible, they appear to kill less sheep, and do not become very much of a nuisance again until about the middle of summer.
The reason why the keas find this season a good time for depredations is uncertain, but may be accounted for as follows: Firstly, owing to the snow having melted, the sheep are able to roam in the kea's domain. Secondly, the sheep have favourite places for sleeping, and, if anywhere near, they make for them night after night. These spots are called “camps,” and no doubt the keas are always sure of finding a good supply of sheep in the “camps” whenever they intend to attack. Thirdly, at shearing - time the sheep are confined to small paddocks, and so have less chance of getting away from the kea. They do not, however, confine their attacks to these seasons only, but have been known to kill sheep all the year round, though autumn seems the time when they attack least: whether it is due to the quantity of their ordinary food, that would be plentiful at this season, or not, is hard to decide.
The time of day when they attack sheep is also uncertain, and, speaking generally, they have been known to attack at all hours; but the evening, night, and early morning appear to be their favourite times.
Why night-time should be their favourite time may be accounted for in several ways. Firstly, the sheep are said to make for the same sleeping-grounds or camp for several consecutive nights, and the birds would be sure of finding plenty of sheep together during the hours of darkness. Secondly, being partly nocturnal in their habits, they have an advantage over the sheep, and at night there is less chance of their being seen or disturbed.
If attacking in daylight they seem to choose dull or foggy days, but this is not always the case, as I have heard of several instances of attacks being made in bright sunshine. However, in these cases there has always been snow on the ground, and the helplessness of the sheep, or the lack of food, may have made them more daring.
Number of Sheep killed.
It is impossible to work out anything like a correct estimate of the damage done to the flocks of sheep by the keas, owing to the uncertainty of the results sent in. For instance, where every sheep that is missing is put down as the work of these birds the damage is exaggerated, and in cases where sheep are killed by the keas and their remains are never seen there will be an underestimation of the loss. Again, if we take the number of birds killed in a certain time we go wrong, because the birds seem to kill at irregular intervals, and when percentages are given we have to find out whether it is made out on one flock, one station, or one district. Often when a percentage is given on a week's or a month's damage, unless it is very clearly stated, it is sometimes taken for the annual loss, and in this way very erroneous results have been published. Some people quote the damage to the stations at 30 and 40 per cent., but I think that this is very wide of the mark. A rough idea of this number killed, even in a short time, can be seen by the following accounts:—
Mr. J. Morgan writes as follows: “In spring, 1894, Mesopotamia Station, Rangitata Gorge, we found a lot of strong wethers dead, and on skinning some we found a small puncture through the skin above the loins, and the flesh torn about under the skin. On going over a block about a mile long and a quarter wide we found close on three hundred dead sheep. The next night a man went out and shot a few birds—in all, during two days, he shot sixty-three keas—and we lost no more
sheep on this spot. On another occasion, when taking hoggets out in the spring, we put them through a gate at dark. When we went in the morning we found seven of the sheep dead, about their camp. The following night we shot eight keas at this place, and, although we took out several mobs of sheep the same way afterwards, no more were killed.”
Mr. P. E. Challis, of Parawa, Southland, states that he has seen nineteen sheep attacked in one evening.
Mr. A. Watherston reports that one evening he found some keas attacking the sheep, and eight of them were killed. On going out at daybreak next morning he found that during the night thirty-eight had been killed, and the keas were still attacking them. The carcases of the sheep were in most cases still warm; and out of about sixteen hundred sheep about three hundred were killed. This loss works out to about 18 per cent. for the winter.
Mr. W. N. Ford says that around Lake Wanaka the losses in the year are about 26 per cent. of the sheep, and about half of these are put down to the keas.
If the birds always kill on an average twenty or thirty a night the loss would be tremendous, but it seems that they make special raids, and then are quiet for some time. Many of the keas must either kill for the love of killing, or else to have a number of dead sheep on which to feed for some time. Many are killed and left almost untouched. However, from evidence, it seems that they come back afterwards and feed on them until the carcases are devoured.
In most of the kea-infested country the annual damage is. I should say, well under 5 per cent. A few stations may lose as much as 10 per cent., and I doubt if any station loses as high as 20 per cent.
Attacking other Animals.
Though the sheep are the favourite animals for the kea to attack, they do not seem to confine themselves to them alone, for I have instances sent me where they have attacked horses, dogs, and rabbits.
Mr. Guthrie gives the following account of an attack on a horse: “The pack-horse was tethered on a piece of flat ground about 10 chains from the camp. After we had tea I strolled over to where there was a large flock of keas, on a little knoll above the pack-horse. This would be about an hour before dusk. One or two flew down on to the horse's back. He was an old, stiff-built cobby horse of a very sluggish nature. He took no notice of the keas when they flew on and off his back for some time, giving him an occasional peck. At last
an old fellow perched on his back and started operations in a most serious manner. He soon had the old horse showing more life than he had ever done before; in fact, before he got the kea dislodged he was almost mad. When I got down to him he was in a heavy sweat, and the blood was trickling slightly over his loins. On examination I found a nasty wound that took a long time to heal, as it became very dirty. Ever after, the horse would so almost frantic when there were any keas about.”
Two of my correspondents record cases where the keas have settled on dogs, and also cases of where rabbits have been killed by these birds.
As well as the evidence that I have received, there have been several notes about the kea's nesting habits, which I think are worth while putting on record. Their breeding season has been recorded as beginning in August, but this seems to be too late in the year.
Mr. J. McIntosh, Burke's Pass, says, “They nest at all times from May onwards. I have seen eggs from May on to September.”
Mr. Turton states that he has seen them early in July, and Messrs. Huddleston and Ford in August.
The late Mr. Potts (N, A) says, “It breeds in the deep crevices and fissures which cleave and seam the sheer facing of almost perpendicular cliffs, that in places bound, as with massive ramparts, the higher mountain - spurs. Sometimes, but rarely, the agile musterer, clambering amongst these rocky fastnesses, has found the entrance to the ‘run’ used by the breeding pair, and has peered with curious glance, tracing the worn track till its course has been lost in the dimness of the obscure recesses beyond the climber's reach. In these retreats the home or nesting - place generally remains inviolate, as its natural defences of intervening rocks defy the efforts of human hands unless aided by the use of heavy iron implements that no mountaineer would be likely to employ.” This account, while giving a very vivid and clear idea of the kea's nest is not quite correct, for, though the birds usually choose such inaccessible positions, they are influenced a good deal by the nature of the country in which they live.
From the evidence that I have received it seems that when they are unable to find such positions as described by Mr. Potts they will build in any place that comes handy, and their nests have been found in caves, under heaps of rocks, in cairns of stones, in banks, in rabbits' burrows, and even on the flat.
The nest is just a small hollow lined with a few bits of grass, and sometimes even these are absent. Most of the nests are connected with the exterior by a long “run,” which is made up of the natural crevices and fissures in the rocks, but Mr. R. Urquhart this year found in a cave a nest which was quite easy to get at owing to the absence of this long passage. Mr. F. F. C. Huddleston gives an account of a nest that he once found, and, from the number of keas found in it, seemed to indicate that it was a sort of breeding colony, for he says that twenty keas came out of it. However, none of my other correspondents mention anything of this kind, so that it must at least be a very rare occurrence.
One of my correspondents states that he has found nestlings in June, but this, like the finding of kea-eggs in May, seems to be rather the exception than the rule. From the accounts that I have received, it is evident that the eggs may be laid as early as the end of June or the beginning of July, and young birds may be expected towards the end of the latter month.
Mr. R. Urquhart found four young birds in a nest on the 21st of August, and as they were about three weeks old when they were found, the eggs must have been laid towards the beginning of July.
The young keas, from all accounts, seem to remain a long time in the nest. Mr. J. McIntosh found some young ones in September and took them out of the nest in December, so they must be nearly full-grown before they leave their parents.
Through the kindness of Mr. R. Urquhart, I received two live kea nestlings, and so was able to see for myself how helpless they are even at an advanced stage of development. The birds were about two months old when I received them, and though they were about the size of an ordinary pigeon, they were quite unable to move about or swallow their food. Their wings were fairly strong, and were flapped sometimes, though rarely, when food was brought to them, but though their legs were large they seemed quite devoid of muscular action, and were never used. Indeed, so helpless were they that when being photographed they would not move from the position in which they were first placed
As there are very few descriptions of young keas on record, I have inserted the following from my diary:—
“22nd September, 1906.—Received two young live keas from Mr. R. Urquhart. Since their capture, a month previous, they have been fed with thin strips of sheep's kidney, which has to be poked down their throats with a small stick. Their cry somewhat resembles that of their parents, but is weaker
and very plaintive. They possess a very disagreeable odour, even when kept in clean apartments.
“Head: Bill—Upper mandible large, and black in colour with the exception of a slight tinge of yellow on the top of the arch. It is not so long as the bill of an adult bird, nor so pointed. Lower mandible of a yellow colour with the exception of a black tip. Wattle round the nostril plentiful and of a light-yellow colour. Mouth large, and on each side of the head at the angle of the jaws there is a large mass of light-yellow material, resembling wattle in appearance, and forming a kind of sac to keep the food from falling out of the sides of the mouth.
“Body: Most of the body, except under the wings, is covered with young feathers, which, like those in the adult bird, are dark-green often fringed with black. The large feathers of the tail and wings are just coming out of their quills. Legs large, dark-grey in colour, with black claws; very weak, and at present useless. The body and head are still covered to a certain extent with long grey down, but this is fast disappearing.
“24th September, 1906.—The larger bird can swallow small pieces of kidney if placed well in the mouth; the other has still to be fed with the aid of a stick. Both seem to enjoy the kidney, and even though they have had nothing else to eat they seem strong and healthy.
“28th September, 1906. — Both caught a chill by being left outside. Smaller one died, and I have chloroformed the other.”
I think it is a noteworthy fact that the kea, though living in a region where the cold and severity of the winter is especially felt, builds its nest, lays its eggs, and hatches its young during the most severe months of winter. During this season its domain is swept by a succession of severe storms, and often the ground is covered for months with several inches of snow. That birds in warm countries do often nest in the winter months is not altogether unknown, but for a bird to rear its young in winter at an altitude of 3,000 ft. or 4,000 ft., in a country where even at sea-level the other birds seem to find it unwise to nest until the spring weather comes, is at any rate remarkable.
It has been suggested that the taste for meat has now become hereditary to the young keas, for when they are given raw meat they eat it readily. The two forwarded to me by Mr. R. Urquhart fed greedily on sheep's kidneys, Mr. W. N. Ford found some kea chicks only a few days out of the shell, and with their eyes still closed, and he kept them for six weeks feeding them on sop and raw meat. This would appear at first sight as if the taste for meat was hereditary; but as pieces of meat have been found outside the nest, it is most likely that the
old birds teach the young to be carnivorous. Again, the fact that young birds will eat meat does not prove conclusively that they have inherited the taste. Other instances are known where animals have instantaneously taken to food that they could never have tasted before.
By the kindness of Dr. Cockayne and Mr. E. Jennings of the Dunedin Museum I am able to publish the following interesting incident: While on a tour of the Southern Islands of New Zealand in the Government Steamer “Hinemoa” in 1904, a specimen, of the flightless duck of New Zealand (Nesonetta aucklandica) was captured and brought alive to Dunedin. From the time of its capture it was fed solely on bread-and-milk, which it seemed to take to very readily. Now, this duck is found only on the Auckland Islands, where it feeds on small crustaceans and other small animals, &c., which are found among the rocks of the sea-shore and the kelp where this bird swims. These Islands are uninhabited, and are practically never visited by any shipping except the Government steamer “Hinemoa,” which pays them an annual visit. It can almost be taken for certain that this particular bird had never before seen bread, much less tasted it, and yet, when caught, it at once took to this strange food, which was so entirely different from its natural supply. This instance, I think, shows that even if birds take to new food readily, it does not prove that the taste is of necessity hereditary.
That the kea is found in the mountainous country of Canterbury, Otago, and Westland is a well-established fact, but whether it lives among the snow-capped peaks and the glaciers or lower down near the forest-line is a question that has never been satisfactorily settled. The generally accepted opinion is that the bird's stronghold is far up among the snow-capped peaks, and a recent book (A) states that the kea lives “up in the mighty mountains where the snow never melts and men seldom go. Sometimes it is driven from its stronghold and is compelled to seek food at lower elevations.”
The late Mr. T. H. Potts (A, N) describes the bird as living “far above the dwarfed vegetation … in a region often shrouded with dense mist or driving sleet,” &c.
It is quite true that the keas do sometimes live in these desolate regions, for they are common at Mount Cook near the large glaciers, where they may be seen soaring from peak to peak. Sir Julius von Haast (I, a) saw two of them flying over the Godley Glacier; but, though he saw keas several times while exploring the mountains, of Canterbury, only once did he see
them in the perpetual-snow-clad regions and among the glaciers. Again, nearly all the accounts of these birds attacking sheep have come from districts which are situated many miles from the regions described by many writers as the kea's home.
At the present day however, the bird does not seem to be a dweller of the glacier regions only, and, although it does often frequent these heights, it is most commonly found about the forest-limit.
Dr. L. Cockayne describes, in a communication to me, its habitat as follows: “I have observed the kea in various parts of the Southern Alps, from the Humboldt Mountains in the south to Kelly's Hill in Westland. Although frequently met with on the open alpine and subalpine hillside, I consider the bird essentially one of the forest-limit, where it may be seen in numbers at the junction of the forest and subalpine meadows, and in the Nothofagus forests at lower levels where such are pierced by river-beds.”
Mr. Taylor White (V) does not consider the bird one of the forest, for he says, “I remember being astonished on reading of the kea living in the forest, for I never, even during the severest winter, saw it perched on trees.” However, in spite of this, as early as 1862, Haast (I, b) saw one in a tree near Lake Wanaka, and since then they have been often seen perching in the forest.
I have on several occasions seen the kea both on the Birdwood Range and Mount Torlesse, and each time the bird has been about the forest-limit. Though I have often seen them at an altitude of 5,000 ft., I have never seen them above that height. Twice I have seen them perching in the Fagus forest—once in July, 1903, in a bush behind the Glenthorne Homestead, and while camping for several days near the source of the Avoca River we continually saw them flying in and out of the forest, about 500 ft. above us.
Seeing these birds so low down in summer rather upsets the statements of many writers who say that the keas only come from higher altitudes in severe weather, for both times when I saw the birds at low altitudes it was in midsummer, and the weather was warm and fine. They come much lower than some people suppose. Potts (N) says that they have been seen at Hororata, near the Malvern Hills, and Mr. G. Rutherford states that nearly every year keas have been shot in the Thirteen-mile Bush, which is situated near the foot of Porter's Pass.
At first I thought that perhaps the keas had learnt to live at lower altitudes so as to be near the sheep, but the fact that before the kea had learnt to kill sheep—namely, between 1861
and 1867—Sir Julius von Haast (I) saw more keas below the snow-line than above is against this suggestion.
I consider that in the future their habitat should he described as follows, in the words of Dr. Cockayne: “Although frequently met with on the open alpine and subalpine hillside, the kea is essentially a bird of the forest-limit, where they may be seen in numbers at the junction of the forest and subalpine meadows, and in the Nothofagus forest at lower levels where such are pierced by river-beds.”
The kea was first found in the Murihiku district, where it was discovered by Mr. W. Mantell in 1856. I had a great difficulty in finding out where that district is, but on inquiring, Mr. D. Barron, Chief Surveyor of the Dunedin Lands and Survey Department, informed me that the Murihiku district embraces from the Mataura River south and westward, including practically all Southland.
At first the tea's area of distribution was thought to be very limited, but as soon as men travelled back into the mountainous country of the South Island it was found that the area was much wider than at first supposed. A few years after its discovery it was found in the mountains of Otago, Southland, and in Canterbury as far north as the Rangitata Gorge. In 1859 Dr. Haast (I, b) found it in the Mount Cook region, and a year later—1860—Sir W. Buller (J, b) saw it in the Rangitata Gorge. In 1861-62 Sir James Hector noticed it in most of the snow mountains of Otago, during his survey, and in the same year Dr. Haast (I, a) saw it on the Godley Glacier. As early as 1865 he found it a long way above its supposed northern limit—namely, at Browning Pass, at the source of the Wilber-force River; and two years later he saw it still further north, near Arthur's Pass, on the West Coast Road. In 1868 they were common around the lakes which lie around the borderline of Otago and Canterbury, and ten years later Sir W. Buller speaks of them as being plentiful in Southland.
Dr. Cockayne, in a communication to me, states that his brother-in-law, Mr. A. Blakely, shot a kea in Arthur's Pass in June, 1881; and in 1882 Potts (N) reports that keas were known at Grassmere, West Coast Road; Lochinvar Station, North Canterbury; and at the head-waters of the Esk and Hurunui Rivers—that is, at the northern boundary of Canterbury.
In 1883 Sir W. Buller (J, R), quoting a letter from Mr. Shrimpton, says that the kea's area of distribution did not extend north of the Rakaia River. However, as both Dr. Haast (I, d) and Mr. Potts (N) had already published records of
their being north of this limit, the former at Arthur's Pass and the latter at Grassmere, Lochinvar, and Hurunui, it shows that this statement was too limited.
In 1888 Mr. W. W. Smith (U) says, “When Sir W. Buller published his last paper on the kea five years ago he gave the ranges on the upper reaches of the Rakaia River as its extreme northern limit. During the last three winters it has visited the ranges above the Otira Gorge, thus showing its range to be extending north.” Mr. Smith, like Sir W. Buller, had evidently not seen the reports of Haast (I, d), who saw it on Arthur's Pass twenty-three years before; and I think that the record of Mr. A. Blakely, who shot one there in 1881, as well as the report of Mr. Potts that it was known at Hurunui as early as 1882, shows that the kea's northern limit was very much beyond the line stated by Mr. Smith.
Mr George Rutherford states that in 1885 it was known at Benmore Run, near Porter's Pass, West Coast Road, and Mr. Bond (Q) reports that it was seen on the Mount Algidas Station about that time.
For some years the stations around Hanmer seemed to be its northern limit, but in 1903 Mr. Edward Kidson, Christchurch, in company with Messrs. F. G. Gibbs and H. M. Bryant, Brightwater, Nelson, saw one at close quarters on Mount Robert, near Lake Rotoiti, about forty miles south of the City of Nelson. Mr. H. M. Bryant, who has done a fair amount of mountaineering in the Nelson Province, says that he had never seen one before, and the late owner of the station at Mount Robert told him that it was the first time that a kea had been seen on his station.
Through the kindness of Mr. R. Kidson I am able to record two other instances in the Nelson Province. In 1904 a kea was caught by Mr. A. G. Hammond at Appleby, thirteen miles south-west of the City of Nelson; and in the same year Mr. S. T. Rowling caught one at Riwaka, a few miles north of Motueka. This is at present the most northern limit where a kea has been found, and the distance between its southern and northern limit is only about four hundred miles.
Through the kindness of Mr. T. E. Currie, Christchurch, I have been able to obtain some reports of its presence in the Marlborough Province, where it has been almost unknown. In May, 1906, on the Tarndale Station, at a place half-way up the Saxton River, some miles north of the homestead, one afternoon about 4 o'clock, Mr. Currie, with eleven other men, saw a kea flying across. As it passed over it gave the well-known kea cry. Though these birds are fairly common around the homestead, they had rarely been seen so far north. Again,
in January, 1906, at the head of the Waihopai River, at a place known as the Glazebrook Whare, near the Blue Mountains, Hellersden Station, farther north still, he saw a kea again. It was about 8 o'clock in the evening, and therefore almost impossible to see it, but as the bird gave its peculiar cry there seems little doubt that it was a kea. One had been seen near that spot in 1905, but never before. The only other report of its appearance in Marlborough is from Mr. F. R. O'Brian, who states that he has seen one only thirty miles from Blenheim.
They appear to extend westward almost, if not quite, to the coast-line. They have been seen at Koiterangi, near Hokitika; at Mahitahi, near Bruce Bay; and Captain Bollons informed me that in June, 1906, he saw one flying along the beach at Bruce Bay itself. It has also been found in several other parts of Westland, for in his report on the survey of Westland Dr. Bell (W) states that it was common on the mountains, and especially around Browning Pass. They may almost be around the sounds of western Otago and Southland, but at present I can find no records of their presence there.
The area of the kea's distribution is therefore confined to the mountainous country of the South Island of New Zealand, from Southland in the south to Tasman Bay in the north, from the coast-line in the west to the limit of the high country in the east. It is about four hundred miles in length, and about one hundred miles in breadth at its widest part.
The Northward Migration.
It has often been stated by early and present - day writers that since its discovery in Southland the kea has gradually migrated northward, through Otago, Canterbury, and Nelson. This idea has been freely quoted as if it were a scientifically proved fact, but from what I can see there is very little evidence at present on record to support it. The records seem to indicate very forcibly that whenever and wherever men have explored the mountainous country from Southland to North Canterbury we have at once records of the kea being found in the parts explored. It is only because the mountainous country in Otago was explored first, and then the northern portions of the Island later, that people have been led, to think that the keas are spreading northward. Very likely if Dr. Haast (I) had explored Arthur's Pass or Browning's Pass before 1856, people would have thought that the kea had spread from Canterbury southward.
Even if we take the records of the kea's discovery, they do not support the northern - migration theory. In 1856 Dr.
Mantell found it in Southland—the exact place is not known; three years later Dr. Haast found it about two hundred miles further north, at Mount Cook. It was not till three years later that Sir James Hector (J), during January, found it on the snow mountains of Otago: yet these mountains are closer to Southland than Mount Cook.
In the same year Dr. Haast (I, a) found it on the Godley Glacier, and three years later, in 1865, he saw it on Browning's Pass (I, c), about eighty miles north of Mount Cook. In 1867 Mr. D. Macfarlane, Peel Forest, says that it was known on the Lochinvar Station, about sixty miles north of Browning's Pass; yet at Arthur's Pass, which is situated between Browning's Pass and Lochinvar Station, though no doubt the kea was there all the time, it was not reported to he there until Dr. Haast explored that country in 1867.
With the exception of the instance stated in Mr. Macfarlane's letter, we have no record of the kea being found further north until 1882. This is very likely because no one explored that part of the country—or, if they did, they left no records of what they saw. However, in 1882, Potts (N) reported them as far north as the head-waters of the Esk and Hurunui Rivers. From what I can see from the recorded evidence, at the time of its discovery in 1856 the kea's area of distribution extended from Southland to the Hurunui River in North Canterbury, and very likely north of this limit. No doubt the reason why the keas are common now on some stations where they were unknown is that since their discovery they have greatly increased in numbers, and have therefore had to widen their area of distribution both east and west, for they have been seen on the coast-line of Westland, and have extended to the eastern limit of the mountainous country in Canterbury.
There is, however, some evidence of a migration at the present time into the north of the Nelson and in the Marlborough Province, but whether they have been there for some time and have not been seen, or that they are really spreading into these provinces, is uncertain. However, even if they were present in the northern part of Nelson and in Marlborough they were not common, and within the last three years they have been recorded from places where before they were unknown. Now that they are spreading into Marlborough, one wonders if the Cook Strait will prove a sufficient barrier to prevent them from flying over to the North Island. The two Islands are only about fifteen miles apart at their nearest points, and on a clear day the opposite coast can easily be seen.
If the kea had migrated north from Southland, as many suppose, one would expect the bird to be rare in the south
where it was first found, but in 1905, from records received, they were still plentiful there.
There is also a certain amount of evidence which seems to indicate that the sheep-killing habit has spread and is still spreading since it was first started about 1868. The first record was from Lake Wanaka, and from there it seems to have spread south to Lake Wakatiou and north to the Amuri district. About 1880 the birds' depredations were recorded from the lakes in the south of Canterbury, and by 1886, after passing north through Peel Forest and the Ashburton Gorge, it was recorded from Lake Coleridge and the stations around Mount Torlesse.
Since writing the above I have received a letter from Mr. D. Macfarlane, who says, “In 1866-67 I was in charge of the Lochinvar Station, at the head-waters of the Waimakariri and during shearing I noticed many sheep with deep wounds in the loins, and the shepherds told me it was done by keas, and that many sheep were killed by the birds.” If this report is true, then the killing of sheep began in Canterbury about the same time that it did in Otago, and therefore there would be two centres from which the habit would spread. Since then the habit has extended to the stations in the Amuri district, and in 1906 a meeting of runholders was held to try and abate the nuisance.
So far I have no records of sheep-killing in Marlborough and North Nelson, though the keas are to be found there.
In Westland the habit has spread west, for in 1906 Mr. Condon, Bruce Bay, South Westland, had some sheep killed at Mahitahi for the first time.
The Kea's Extinction.
As early as 1888, Sir W. Buller says that he is certain that these interesting birds would soon be extinct, but in spite of the thousands that have been killed they are still common in the mountainous country of the South. Island. No doubt the almost inaccessible position of their nests, as well as the rough nature of the country in which they live, are responsible for their non-extinction. However, closer settlement of the land and the systematic slaughter that is now going on must in time exterminate the mountain-parrot, and, like many other interesting forms of our avifauna, it will disappear for ever before the march of civilisation.
I would suggest that in order to prevent these interesting birds from becoming quite extinct a number of them should be placed on one of the outlying islands, where they could live
and flourish without doing injury to any one. The most suitable islands, as far as I can ascertain, are the Aucklands, which lie ninety miles south-by-west from the most southerly point of Stewart Island. There would be very little chance of the birds returning to the mainland; and though the hills only rise to a height of about 2,000 ft., there seems to be enough forest and high country to make a very satisfactory reserve for these interesting parrots.
In concluding I should like to take this opportunity of thanking all those who have so willingly helped me in my investigations. I am specially indebted to Dr. L. Cockayne, who has helped me with many valuable suggestions, and also to those who have given me their actual experiences with keas, for I know that without their co-operation this paper could never have been written.
A. “Animals of New Zealand,” p. 135.
B. “Australasia,” Wallace, p. 290.
C. Brehm's “Thierleben-Vogel,” vol. i, p. 166.
D. “British Museum Catalogue,” vol. xx, p. 4.
E. Cambridge Nat. Hist., Birds, Evans, pp. 364, 374.
F. “Climbs in New Zealand Alps,” Fitzgerald, p. 360.
G. “Darwinism,” Wallace, p. 75.
H. “Dictionary of Birds,” Newton, p. 627.
I. “Geology of Canterbury and Westland,” Haast: (a) p. 22; (b) p. 36; (c) p. 117; (d) p. 148.
J. “History of New Zealand Birds,” Buller, vol. i: (a) p. 165; (b) p. 167; (c) p. 169.
K. “Journal fur Ornithologie,” Marz, 1872.
L. “Nature”: (a) vol. iv, p. 489; (b) vol. v, p. 262.
M. “New Zealand Journal of Science,” 1891, p. 198.
N. “Out in the Open,” Potts: (a) p. 188; (b) p. 189.
O. “Proceedings of the Zoological Society,” 1856, p. 94.
P. “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” vol. iii: (a) p. 13; (b) p. 52; (c) p. 86.
Q. “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” vol. xi, p. 376.
R. “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” vol. xvi, p. 316.
S. “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” vol. xvii, p. 449.
T. “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” vol. xviii: (a) p. 98; (b) p. 113.
U. “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” vol. xxi, p. 212.
V. “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” vol. xxvii, p. 273.
W. “Westland: Geology of Hokitika Sheet, North Quadrangle,” 1906, p. 13.
X. “Zoologist,” 1871, vol. xxix.
Y. “Zoologist,” 1881, p. 290.
Z. “Zoologist,” 1883, p. 276.
Explanation of Plate XV.
Map of the South Island of New Zealand, showing the Kea's Distribution.
Places where keas have been seen to attack sheep and authentic accounts have been sent in.
Places where keas have been reported to have attacked sheep but no accounts have been sent in.
Place where keas have been reported to have been seen.
Capital towns of the provinces.