Kea: Kokopelli in Drag

There is a story told by one of our bus drivers that a kea removed the rubber seal around a car’s windshield in a mountain parking lot, causing the glass to fall and shatter. The bird had also stripped the rubber from the windshield wipers. When the owner returned, he was understandably furious and began chase. As he went one way around the car and then the other, his quarry kept circling the car in the same direction and managed to avoid capture. I’ll bet that every Kiwi has a similar tale about the bird that once had a bounty on its head for killing sheep.

The kea is a parrot that lives only on the South Island of New Zealand. It’s an impressive bird, not only because of its great size but also its great intelligence. Unlike its parrot brethren, the kea is an alpine bird, which means it can survive in the coldest of weather. Wherever they appear, signs are posted not to feed them, firstly because it may be bad for their health, but equally important because you’d be inviting trouble. A photographer who poked his camera too close got his dangling lens cap stolen. People who approach too close may have their hiking boots attacked. They can even completely shred a tent. And, for some odd reason, they are attracted to rubber, like the story above.

In the nineteenth century, the government put a bounty on their heads because it was thought they were killing sheep. This almost led to their extinction before the bounty was removed. Now, the kea is protected. As for its killer reputation, it happens rarely.

Two popular haunts for these birds are the parking lot just west of the Homer Tunnel on Highway 94 going toward Milford Sound and around the Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook National Park.

I’m convinced that the kea is not a parrot at all, but the embodiment of any of the cleverest tricksters of mythology. Wrapped in feathers, it’s Kokopelli in drag.

Protecting Your Privates

(Image taken from

As most people are aware, the kiwi bird, endemic to New Zealand, is in a struggle against extinction. Having evolved without any natural predators, it now faces a threat from deforestation and from humans, cats, possums, dogs, rats and stoats, among others. The stoat’s modus operandi is slitting the carotid arteries of its victims. (When its fur turns white in very cold climates, a stoat is called an ermine.) This normally docile, flightless nocturnal creature is defenseless against this kind of assassin.

One would think that the kiwis are pretty helpless, right? Well, as we learned at the Kiwi & Birdlife Park (in Queenstown), this is not always the case. Underneath this normally shy exterior lies an unpredictable menace, a behavior so primal that the draw of the short straw elicits cold sweats and jangled nerves in the caregiver who has to feed them. During the breeding season, the male species of most animals is known to engage in aggressive behavior. The male kiwi is no exception. If he perceives a threat, even from a caregiver with food, he can literally jump up in the air and, with his powerful ratite legs, aim a well-placed, painful kick at your kneecap. Or, if you’re a male caregiver, maybe plant a groin-kick worthy of Lisbeth Salander? And make no mistake, those feet are tipped with sharp claws that can slash. My daughter who lives in NZ thinks that this Jekyll and Hyde behavior is a symbolic metaphor for NZ’er driving habits. Here are some other interesting facts about the kiwi.

Zebra Dove

All over Hawaii, the zebra dove is found in abundance, scurrying along grassy areas and pecking at things on the ground with their beaks. Originally from Southeast Asia, they have become adapted to the islands. They have a very distinctive staccato-like coo of short but pleasant bursts. Although their plumage is brownish gray with striping along their breasts and flanks, they do have a bluish-gray cast on their faces with a more distinctive blue around their eyes. We heard them everywhere.

Click on the object below to hear a sample (recorded by R. O’Donnell on the Big Island)