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Wild Life in the West Highlands

PERHAPS the most extraordinary instance of an entire change in the ordinary habits of life of any creature, unique in suddenness as well as in degree, is that exemplified in the New Zealand mountain parrot, the kea.

This bird is a species apparently confined to the South Island of New Zealand, where it inhabits exclusively the bare and barren heights of the great mountain ranges. It is seldom seen below the so-called ‘snow-line,’ which is approximately an altitude of some 5000 to 6000 feet above sea-level. Here all ‘bush’ or timber growth ceases, and the heights are covered for half the year with snow.

This bird for long escaped observation. It is nowhere to be found in great numbers; it is somewhat local in distribution, and the regions it frequents are often inaccessible. As the pastoral industry of New Zealand developed, it occurred to a few of the more adventurous of the pioneer sheep-farmers to drive some portion of their flocks to these higher regions above the bush-line in the summer months, when the winter snow had mostly disappeared. Thus, about the year 1856, the kea was first discovered. Some years passed, and little more was heard or thought of it; but presently that small band of pioneers found that some of their sheep at these high altitudes were being attacked, maimed and destroyed in a mysterious way by some unknown enemy. Dying and dead animals were found, and always in these high regions.

Various theories were set afloat as to the possible depredator ; but these gradually crystallised into the belief-received with scepticism by many-that the kea was the culprit. The question was finally set at rest about the year 1868, when indisputable evidence was obtained from shepherds who had seen the kea in the act. It was thus established that a bird, little larger than a common pigeon, which up to that time could not possibly have fed on, or even seen, any mammal alive or dead, and certainly had never seen a sheep, had, in a short time, acquired a taste and developed a persistence and dexterity in satisfying it, that might almost be termed devilish.

Opinions naturally varied as to how this extraordinary change had first arisen. One theory was that the birds had come across the newly-flayed skins at the slaughtering-places, and had thus been introduced to raw flesh; another, that they had been innocently searching for ticks or other insects in the sheeps' wool, and had accidentally broken the skin, with the like result. I recently questioned Mr. Alexander F. G. Brown, one of the survivors of the enterprising pioneers of the higher ranges of the South Island. The following is the clear and vivid record of his experiences and recollections:

'As to the name, it is of course Maori and onomatopoeic, the cry of the bird varying from "Kee-ah " to "Kay-oh." I have heard Maoris use both of these sounds in naming it, but chiefly the former. To the question, Is it a ground parrot? I should say certainly not, though it might be called a rock or mountain parrot, as its habitat is in the rocky spurs and ridges of the mountains, at an altitude of from 5000 to 7000 feet above sea-level. Of course these heights are approximate, and I can only speak of Southern New Zealand where the snow-line is roughly estimated at about 5000 feet above sea-level. I have never known or heard of these birds being seen much below the snow-line, and certainly never in the low country, and never in "bush," i.e. forest. The "snow-line" in New Zealand means the height at which all timber and shrubs cease growing on the mountains. The bush ends quite suddenly at the line ; above that there is nothing but grass, moss, rocks and a few Alpine flowers, and possibly a few small berries. The snow lies down to the line for about six months, more or less, according to the severity of the season, but the rest of the year the mountains are clear of snow except in a few deep hollows. The average height of the mountains is some seven or eight thousand feet.

'As to the original food of the kea, it is difficult to speak with certainty. There were unfortunately no naturalists among the nine or ten squatters who had mountain runs in those days, and it was only on these runs that the kea could be observed. But when one is mustering sheep on mountains 8000 feet high, one has little time or inclination to attend to anything but the work in hand. Still we did discuss the matter, and the general conclusion was that the kea lived chiefly on grubs and insects, possibly on lizards if they existed so high up ; the whole eked out with such seeds and small berries (very few) as grew at those altitudes. In short, we considered that the kea was omnivorous, with the exception that it would not eat carrion ; but our only reason for this last conclusion was that we had never seen it doing so-and for the former that there was nothing else for it to live on.

'How the kea acquired its regrettable habit of eating the backs of live sheep is, and I fear must always be, a matter of conjecture. The only thing certain is that the theory that the bird learned the practice through frequenting slaughter-yards is quite absurd, for the simple reason that there were no such places within two or three thousand feet of the elevation frequented by these parrots, and no one ever saw a kea in those days, when their horrid custom began, so low down. As I have already said, the number of mountain run-holders then was small ; we all knew each other, and we and our shepherds were the only persons who had seen or observed the habits of the kea in any way, and the above theory was unheard of among us. To the best of my recollection, though of this I cannot now be positive, I believe his depredations were first heard of in the south. The shepherds had a theory that these birds began their evil practice through alighting on the backs of sheep that had died in the snow. Sheep that perish in snow almost invariably die lying on their stomachs ; when they die from other causes they fall on their sides ; but as the sheep put to graze above the snow-line were invariably all young and strong, few if any deaths would occur among them except those caused by snow.

`It is easy to imagine that after alighting on the dead animal's back, the inquisitive parrot would commence turning over the wool as he is supposed to turn over the soil in his search for grubs. He finds a tick-probably deadwith its head buried in the skin of the sheep; in extracting the tick the kea breaks the skin, finds the taste good, or perhaps merely out of curiosity burrows deeper, and so begins his new habit. It is a mistake to suppose that the bird goes only for the kidney and the fat thereof. He eats all the meat from the loins and saddle first, and the first-comer, who I take it is the strongest and greediest bird, gets this; the last bird gets the kidneys and fat when he burrows so deep, which is not always the case by any means.

`I once saw the first part of this operation very clearly and comparatively quite close, though unfortunately I was powerless to interfere till too late. I was bringing a large mob of sheep from the mountain down a very narrow ridge with precipitous sides when I noticed about 100 yards ahead a small flock or covey of keas, about six or seven (they are generally seen in lots of from five to twelve) in a state of great excitement, squalling and flying round and up and down just above the sheep. The sheep took no notice of them, and presently I saw that the parrots were confining their attentions to two particular animals. Two birds at a time would alight on the back of each sheep and grub away hard with their beaks, other birds would attack the first pair, and a conflict and scrimmage would ensue; then the pair of butchers would be left alone for a bit, and then the process was repeated. The strange thing is that the sheep did not appear to mind the attack or suffer much. They would give a little start forward now and then, or stop and shake, but otherwise they walked quietly along. I could do nothing to help them, as, from the nature of the ground, to have shouted, thrown a stone, or sent forward a dog would have probably sacrificed the lives of all, or certainly of many hundreds of the sheep, but as soon as I got them on to safer ground I rounded them up and caught the two wounded animals. Poor beasts, they were in a dreadful state, their backs torn to pieces and the flesh eaten out, though not through to the kidneys. I had to kill the poor things, as their condition was hopeless.

'While I was thus engaged, the keas were squalling round me quite close, and I managed to kill one of them with my stick. They are very bold, fearless birds, and, like most of the New Zealand birds, intensely curious. Personally I believe that their curiosity is the real origin of their new habit, and that they commenced it by attacking newly-shorn sheep on which there was a scar or wound. Certainly I never saw a kea on a dead sheep, and as they are not supposed to touch carrion, I do not see how they could well learn to attack live sheep if they only practised on dead sheep that had not become high ; their opportunities would be so few.

`In further support of my theory, I do not remember once noticing wounded sheep when we mustered for shearing about midsummer; though when we took the sheep down in autumn before the first snowfall there was always a number more or less mutilated. The beginning of the habit, so far as South New Zealand is concerned, may be put down as somewhere about the middle of the "sixties." The kea was practically unknown and unheard of until some years after the mountain runs were not only taken up, but until the more venturesome owners took to summering their wethers above the snow-line. This would be about the beginning of the "sixties," but it was not until some years after that period that mysteriously-mangled sheep were noticed when the muster took place. What caused these wounds was naturally the subject of much discussion, and all sorts of speculations were brought forward to account for them.

'When I went out in '67 the question was still undecided, though the kea was by that time under strong suspicion; and in '68 or '69 the matter was finally settled by a shepherd on a run close to ours catching a kea flagrante deliclo. He brought the bird home with him, and kept it in a cage for a long time, where it became very tame and seemed to live very happily, eating bread and mutton with equal relish.

'When one considers that the kea, until it adopted mutton as an article of diet, must have always suffered, more or less, from hunger, and that it is not only of a very curious but also of a bold and fearless nature, one cannot be much surprised at its acquiring the new habit. Hunger and curiosity linked to energy are, I fancy, powerful stimulants to progress along the "path of evolution."

During the forty or fifty years that have elapsed since the depredations of the kea were first noticed, and eventually brought home to the culprit, a good deal has been learned as to the life-history of the bird. Owing to the remoteness of the regions inhabited by it, and doubtless also to the fact that those brought into immediate contact with it and its progress in evil ways were busy men, such knowledge was of very gradual growth, and came only by slow degrees to the cognisance of the public generally. Such records as were from time to time printed appeared, for the most part, in local publications, chiefly in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.

Since writing this paper, I have read with interest a recent work, entitled The Kea: a New Zealand Problem, by G. R. Marriner, the Curator of the Public Museum, Wanganui, New Zealand. In this little work the principal facts, theories and conclusions have been brought together. It is interesting to find that the views and experiences of the early pioneers, given in the letter from one of them printed above, are here corroborated in almost every detail.

The nesting of the bird was unknown when it was first discovered, and so remained for many years. It is, indeed, only quite recently that its nest and breeding habits, which so long evaded research, have become known. The nest is placed far within deep recesses and crevices of cliffs and rocks that are always remote and often inaccessible; in 1882 the eggs were still unknown, and even to-day are so scarce as to be worth ;6r an egg. They are white, and usually four in number.

Mr. Marriner states that the nesting season is from June to September; but as he also gives an instance of a nest being found with eggs in January, the breeding period would seem to be very irregular. A singular peculiarity is noticed in the exceptionally long period during which the young remain in the nest, an instance being given in which the young, found in September, were still in the nest in December; in fact, it is said, loc, cit., that they remain there until quite full-grown.

The vexed question as to what was the cause of the Kea first commencing his terrible butcher-habit is fully discussed by Mr. Marriner; but it is left, as before, a matter of doubt and conjecture. We shall probably be right in thinking that it had not necessarily, or even probably, one single origin. It is difficult to imagine that such a custom commenced with one individual bird; and different causes may very likely have started the habit at different times. It is on record that in some cases years elapsed after flocks had been driven to new 'Kea country,' before the first cases of mutilation occurred. It must be mentioned, however, in favour of the `Tick' theory, that a singularly analogous case is mentioned by Mr. Marriner as occurring in British East Africa. Here, according to Professor Ray Lankester, the Rhinoceros-bird formerly fed on ticks that infest game and domestic animals ; and when the animal had a sore, would probe it to such an extent as sometimes to cause death. The great herds having been destroyed by the cattle plague, and this source of food thus no longer available, `the birds have become carnivorous, and now any domestic animal, not constantly watched, is killed by them. Perfectly healthy animals have their ears eaten down to the bone, holes torn in their backs and in the femoral region.

As may be readily imagined, the kea has for long had a price set on his head, and kea hunting was taken up as a profession that, for a time, yielded a fair profit. It is not likely, however, that the species will be exterminated for many a day, if ever. Vast tracts of wild and inaccessible country will probably for long afford a sanctuary to a remnant.

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