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:—