By ANNE BESTON environment reporter
New Zealand's baddest bird, the kea, has given new meaning to the phrase "bird brain."
The troublesome native parrot, which can cause havoc with the rubber trim on cars, has been shown to be as clever as some of the smartest animals on the planet.
In some intelligence tests carried out by a Canterbury University masters student, kea outscored gibbons - anthropoid apes which are part of the primate family.
Primates, which include the chimpanzee, orang-utan and human beings, set the benchmark for intelligence testing.
Not only did kea take to the tests with gusto, they solved the set problems by thinking them through.
Masters student Rachel Johnston used a series of tests with a see-through cylinder, a piece of string and a kea treat, cheese.
The birds worked out that they needed to keep the string anchored under one foot as they hauled up the cheese. They also found out how to use a lever on the cylinder to get at the food.
At first the birds would scratch at the container but when they hopped on the perch at the top of the test apparatus and saw the string, "the lightbulb went on," Ms Johnston said.
The tests involved 21 wild kea at Christchurch's Mt Hutt skifield, as well as captive birds.
Ability differed a lot between birds, and the juveniles enjoyed the tests the most.
"I have always thought they were a remarkable bird, but I was a bit surprised at the speed at which they solved problems.
"There was definitely learning going on."
Split, a juvenile male at Mt Hutt, used seven techniques to get the cheese reward.
"Whenever he saw me carrying the testing apparatus through the carpark he would follow in hot pursuit, head tilted and hopping about in typical kea style, as if wondering what method he would use to get the cheese today."
Ms Johnston said her research raised the question of whether kea were genuine vandals or some form of remarkable "flying primate."
She said that what really caught their attention was anything yellow and pliable that had an element of complexity and novelty.
"It might then be asking for trouble to head into kea country with an unusual, yellow-foam ski rack," she said.
Kea (Nestor notabilis) are a category B endangered species and are fully protected.
Their curiosity and ingenuity often bring them into conflict with humans, particularly at South Island skifields, where they fill up on food litter and spend the rest of their time looking for trouble.
The Department of Conservation has had to smooth ruffled feathers in the tiny South Island settlement of Fox Glacier after frequent complaints by residents over "hoon gangs" of kea.
The test results did not surprise DoC spokesman Ian Gill.
"We all know they are right up there on the smart scale."