Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

What makes our cheeky kea tick?

The size of the wild kea population is unknown but is estimated to be between 1000 and 5000 birds. Photo/File
The size of the wild kea population is unknown but is estimated to be between 1000 and 5000 birds. Photo/File

New Zealand's cheeky alpine parrot may be much smarter than we think, scientists say.

Research led by a University of Auckland scientist has shown how the mischievous birds are not only clever problem-solvers, but are happy to team up on tasks, even when the reward isn't shared equally.

In a new programme based at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch, Dr Alex Taylor has been investigating how kea think; by better understanding what makes them tick, conservationists may be able to improve efforts to preserve the nationally-endangered endemic species.

Because humans and kea were separated by millions of years of evolution, Taylor was further interested to find whether the alpine birds think in a similar way to how we do.

"Everyone knows that they rip things off cars and can be a little bit naughty and cheeky but no one actually knows that much about how they think and we need to change that."

Taylor's work has already revealed how the birds have proven themselves as smart as elephants and chimpanzees at some tasks.

In a study published last month in the journal PLOS One, he observed how pairs of trained captive-bred kea, placed in enclosures and separated by wire mesh, were able to work together to secure food.

The task, similar to one tested on chimps and elephants, required both birds to move a board with food closer to themselves by each pulling on pieces of string at the same time.

Taylor found how, in some instances, kea would wait for their partners so they could achieve the task together.

"For us, it was really intriguing to see the kea doing so well at this fairly established problem, which a lot of species struggle at."

One juvenile bird, dubbed Neo, was particularly good at teamwork.

"If we gave him the choice of solving a task on his own or working with another kea, he would prefer to join another one, which is kind of exciting."

A second study, published today, found that unlike humans, who can become upset if they don't receive an equal share, kea don't seem to care if they work co-operatively and either they or their partner get a less desirable treat.

While working in pairs in another experiment, the birds sometimes received the same reward, and sometimes were given different values of reward.

"This shows that, basically, kea don't appear to have what we call an inequity aversion, which, put simply, is a sense of fairness: if I work for something and you don't and we both get the same reward, humans typically see this as unfair."

Although kea are highly social and play a lot together in the wild, they don't usually help each other out, so it was unsurprising that they were shown to be unfazed by unequal rewards.

Taylor said New Zealand was home to an abundance of "amazing" endemic birds, yet there remained a shortage of research around the kea, which now numbered only between 1000 and 5000.

"Because the kea population has declined so dramatically, we are interested to know more about it, so maybe we can come up with some new conservation strategies."

New Zealand's cheeky parrot

• Kea (Nestor notabilis) are an endemic parrot of the South Island's high country. Although they are seen in reasonable numbers throughout the South Island, the size of the wild population is unknown- but is estimated at between 1000 and 5000 birds.

• Raucous cries of "keeaa" often give away the presence of these highly social and inquisitive birds. However, their endearing and mischievous behaviour can cause conflict with people. Kea will often congregate around novel objects, and their strong beaks have enormous manipulative power.

• Kea grow up to 50cm long and although mostly vegetarian, also enjoy grubs and insects. The kea is related to the forest kaka.

• It is thought to have developed its own special characteristics during the last great ice age, by using its unusual powers of curiosity in its search for food in a harsh landscape.

Source: Department of Conservation

- NZ Herald

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