Psittacus notabilis. Synonym: Nestor notabilis, Gld.
German: Der olivengrüne Stumpfschwanzlori.
French: Le Perroquet Ka-Ka des Montagues.
THIS curious bird has been frequently confounded with its relation the Ka-Ka Parrot (Nestor meridionalis), from which it differs in many material points; however it is now fully differentiated as a distinct species, although the Zoological Society of London tries to perpetuate the confusion by naming one the Ka-Ka, and the other the Mountain Ka-Ka; which is, to say the least, injudicious.
The Kea is a large bird, measuring nineteen and a half inches in length, of which the tail occupies seven and a half, and the bill, along the ridge of the upper mandible, one and three quarters. The lower mandible along its edge measures one inch.
The tarsi are short, measuring 1.5 inch; but the toes, claws inclusive, are rather long, the longest measuring two and a quarter inches.
The first recorded notice we have of this species is that given by Mantell in 1856, not 1848 as quoted by Dr. Russ. It was figured by the late John Gould in the Supplement to his Birds of Australia, and was found to be plentiful in the snowy mountains in the province of Otago, by Dr. Hector, who saw it "among the holes and fissures of all but inaccessible rooks; which are often shrouded with dense mists or clouds of driving sleet, impelled with terrific violence by the northwest wind."
"The Green Parrot", writes Mr. Potts in this connection, "may be observed entering or leaving crevices in the rocks, or soaring with motionless wings from peak to peak; far above the screaming Ka-Kas or the chattering Parrakeets. It has also been seen feeding on the ground in the moonlight, and can hardly be esteemed an arboreal bird."
The Nestors are a family of flowersuckers, the tongue being furnished at its extremity with a fine brush-like or filamentous development for that especial purpose; and yet, strange to relate, the subject of the present notice is said to have departed from the habits of its congeners in this respect of late years, and to have acquired a partiality for quite another kind of food, as we shall presently see.
The Keas are sprightly birds and active, whether on the wing, or when threading their way through the woodlands of their native wilds. On the ground they progress by a series of hops, instead of walking with the waddling awkward gait of the true Parrots, and are quick and sudden in their movements; springing in a cage from perch to perch with the agility of a Sparrow.
During the summer their food consists in a great measure of the nectar of flowers, a banquet of the gods, which, however, they in common with their relations, the Ka-Kas, vary by feasting on grubs and insects of all kinds, as well as on seeds and roots, so that they may very properly be called omnivorous.
When its native mountains, however, are capped with snow, and the flowers and the grubs have all disappeared, the Kea descends into the plains, visits the "stations" of the settlers, where, to quote Mr. Potts, "it soon finds and appreciates that indispensable requisite of every out-station, the meat gallows, which it usually visits by night; beef and mutton suffering equally from its attack, and even the drying sheep skins are not neglected."
Were this all, the Mountain Parrot might be pardoned; for what will not extremity of hunger prompt a starving creature to do? but after all, the heads of sheep and cattle are what it makes a meal of, when food of no other description is to be obtained; and these having been cast away as valueless by the stockmen and butchers, no great harm can be said to be effected by the theft.
Mr. Potts, however, relates, on the authority of the Otago Daily Times, how "for the last three years the sheep belonging to a settler in the Wanaka district, appeared afflicted with what was thought to be a new kind of disease, for which the neighbours and shepherds were equally at a loss to account, never having seen anything of the kind before.
"The first appearance of the supposed disease is a patch of raw flesh on the loins of a sheep, about the size of a man's hand, from which matter continually runs down the side; taking the wool completely off in the parts it touches, and in many cases death is the result."
At last a shepherd, more observant, or perhaps more imaginative than his fellows, "noticed one of the Mountain Parrots sticking to a sheep, pecking at a sore, while the animal seemed unable to get rid of its tormentor", and reported the matter to his employer; after having, not without difficulty, driven away the Kea, and rescued, for the time at all events, the poor bleeding sheep.
"The runholder gave directions to his shepherds, when mustering their flocks on the high grounds, to watch the Parrots, with the result that when near the snow line on the upper ranges, they saw several of the birds surrounding a sheep, which was bleeding from a recent wound in the side; while on other sheep were noticed places where the Keas had begun to attack them, small patches of wool having been plucked out."
"The birds come in flocks", continues the narrator, "single out a sheep at random, and each alighting on its back, in turn tears out the wool, and makes the sheep bleed, till the animal runs away from the rest of the flock. The birds then pursue it, continue to attack it, and force it to run about till it becomes stupid and exhausted. If in that state it throws itself down, and lies as much as possible on its back to keep the Parrots from pecking the part attacked, they pick a fresh hole in its side, and the animal thus set upon frequently dies."
A most extraordinary story, which, as Dr. Suss, in quoting it, appositely remarks, it takes no inconsiderable amount of faith to believe. For our part we confess it appears too circumstantial for implicit credence; but if true, the mode of attack evinces the possession of no inconsiderable amount of sagacity, not to say intelligence, by these carnivorous honeysuckers; combining, as they do, for a common object, and working in relays to attain it with a minimum of labour and fatigue. Credat Judceus!
Sir Walter Buller, who quotes the article, from which the foregoing extracts are taken, in his History of the Birds of New Zealand, expresses no opinion of his own in regard to it, but leaves it to his readers, apparently, to reject or accept as they please. At the Zoological Gardens the Keas did not evince a great liking for the lumps of raw mutton that were ostentatiously hung up in their cage, but evidently preferred maize and oats, with which they were always provided.
It is possible that in time they might have taken to their provision of raw flesh, but they did not live long enough to acquire the unnatural taste, or rather to indulge in it while other and more palatable diet was available; for with less than their usual discrimination, the authorities who rule the Gardens, placed the denizens of snow-capped mountains in the Parrot House, where a tropical heat is generally maintained, with the result that anyone in the least acquainted with the habits of these birds might have anticipated, and a resultant loss to science, that will better be appreciated by and bye, when the last Kea has joined his congener of Philip Island in "the happy hunting grounds", from which is no return.
"Where the Keas so attack the sheep", continues the writer in the Otago Daily Times, "the elevation of the country is from four thousand to five thousand feet above the sea level, and they only do so in the winter time!"
Yet, so true is the saying, "give a dog a bad name and hang him", these curious and really beautiful birds, that devour so many noxious grubs during the summer months in their mountain home among the New Zealand Alps, are doomed, on the authority of a newspaper article, to speedy extermination; though the same writer concludes his sensational story with the remark, "On a station, some thirty miles distant from the other, and belonging to the same owner, at the same altitude, in the same district, and where the birds are plentiful, they do not attack the sheep in that way."
Poor Keas! when you have been all trapped, shot, and otherwise destroyed, the concluding paragraph, from the article in the Daily Times of Otago, will perhaps bo remembered as well as those that preceded it, and people will say "what a pity! how that wretched Cossus ligniperda (or whatever the goat-moth's New Zealand equivalent may be) has increased and multiplied since the Mountain Parrots have disappeared;" but then it will bo too late to remedy the sad mistake.
Inhabiting as they do the slopes of the New Zealand Southern Alps, the Kea Parrots are quite indifferent to cold, and could no doubt be readily acclimatised in this country, were any amateurs bold enough to introduce into our midst a bird that rightly or wrongly has incurred such an evil reputation.
It is only during very severe weather that it descends from its native fastnesses into the plains, and then it is want of food, and not the dread of cold that impels it to migrate. Those who have visited its alpine haunts report it to bo still comparatively common there; and at the heads of all the principal rivers in the Canterbury Province it is to bo seen soaring aloft above the rocks, or foraging amongst the close stunted alpine vegetation; but in the more settled districts of the colony its numbers are much diminished, and from some places where it was formerly abundant it has entirely disappeared.
The first Kea seen in the Regent's Park Gardens, was acquired by the Zoological Society in 1872, having been presented by the Acclimatisation Society of Canterbury, New Zealand. Another was presented by Dr. de Lautour in 1881, and a third was "deposited" in the following year.
In addition to a "mewing" cry, noticed by Mr. Potts, the Kea utters a sharp whistle, a chuckle, and a suppressed scream scarcely distinguishable from that of its congener the Ka-Ka. Nothing is known, with certainty, of its breeding; but judging from its habits, it is probable that the nest is placed in some inaccessible crevice of the rocks in its wild alpine haunts.
In captivity the Mountain Parrot is very attractive, becoming very docile, gentle, and playful; it also learns to speak and whistle, and engages attention by its sprightly active movements. It is frequently kept by the Maories, who prize a trained bird so highly that Sir Walter Buller has known £10 to be refused for one that was somewhat old and dilapidated as to its plumage, but invaluable to its owner as a decoy. Even in their wild state they are by no means shy; but in the Otago province are so tame that they are easily knocked down, says Sir Walter, by a stone or other missile.
The same writer gives the following minute description of the plumage, which will be found to differ somewhat from the illustration given with the present article; but, as Buller observes, "The members of the genus Nestor show a great tendency to individual variation", scarcely two of them being found exactly alike:-"The general colour of the plumage is a dull olive green, brighter on the upper parts, with a rich gloss over all; each feather is broadly tipped aud narrowly margined with dusky black, with shaft lines of the same colour, except on the head, where there is merely a darker shaft line; the ear coverts and the cheeks are olivaceous brown, with darker margins; the feathers on the sides are strongly tinged with orange red; the primaries are dusky brown, with the outer webs light metallic blue in their basal portion, and largely toothed on the inner web with bright lemon yellow; the secondaries are greenish blue, changing to olive on their outer webs, dusky brown on their inner, and toothed with orange yellow; the lining of the wings and the axillary plumes are vivid scarlet, with narrow dusky tips; the inner coverts towards the flexure are washed with lemon yellow; the rump and upper tail coverts are bright arterial red, mixed with olive, and prettily vandyked at the tips with dusky black, this colour being richest on the middle tail coverts, and changing on the lateral ones to bright olive, shaded with red and tipped with brown. The tail feathers are olive green on their upper surface, with a fine metallic gloss, paler at the tips, and inclining to blue on the outer feathers, the whole crossed near the extremity by a broad band of blackish brown; the under surface is pale olive green, with the subterminal band less distinct, and broadly on the inner webs with bright lemon yellow; the under tail coverts are dull olive green tipped with brown.
"The bill is greyish brown, the lower mandible rich wax-yellow in its basal portion; the feet are yellowish olive, with paler soles.
"The female is similar to the male, but has the tints of the plumage generally duller, and the dusky margins of the feathers broader.
"In some examples the lower mandible, instead of being wax-yellow, is dark brown, and these are probably young birds."
It is a great pity that these Nestors are not exported, instead of being shot down by the colonists. At present their rarity and costliness keep them out of the reach of the ordinary amateur. But from what one can observe of their playful ways in the Zoological Gardens, they look as though they would make delightful pets. They are very clever, and their cages at the Gardens had to be padlocked, for they would open any ordinary fastening. I daresay they would therefore make good talkers too. Parrots which are clever in one way are generally clever in another.
From what a gentleman from New Zealand told me, I gather the Ka-Ka (Nestor hypopolius) is guiltless of sheep-eating, and that our subject is the sole culprit. He told me that the Ka-Ka was strictly a forest bird, and confined to the Northern Island, where there are no sheep-runs, and that the bird which killed the sheep was a large green bird, burrowing, and partly nocturnal in its habits. Not at that time having seen the Kea, I could only think of the Owl Parrot (Stringops); but knowing the rarity of Stringops, I could not account for the bird being so destructive. But the Kea unites all the qualities my informant attributed to the sheep-killer. It is large, green, burrows, and flies by night, and inhabits the South Island. However, even if it be so destructive, the New Zealanders would do better to export it than kill it. Supposing the price, which is now £25 a piece, fell to £5, they might still make a profit. It should be noted that the Ka-Ka in the Gardens preferred Indian corn to mutton.