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.