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Roadside ‘gyms’ in New Zealand Help Protect Endangered Alpine Parrots

In New Zealand, measures have been taken by conservationists to keep the kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, away from traffic.
Experts have created roadside exercise gyms for these naturally curious and playful birds, with the aim being to draw their interest when they might otherwise venture onto the dangerous roads.
The gyms consist of ladders, spinning devices, swings and climbing frames. Cameras monitoring the gyms in the Milford area have already shown that this method may prove helpful not only in protecting the birds but also in mentally stimulating them. This, it is said, will reduce the chances of keas exhibiting destructive behaviour, a trait which academics from the University of Canterbury suggest is as a result of boredom.

World’s Smartest Parrots

Over the years, keas have developed a reputation as being highly intelligent, in no small part as a result of David Attenborough’s 2005 documentary ‘Kea: The Smartest Parrot?’
In New Zealand, they are known to be an especially sociable species, showing a phenomenal interest in interacting with humans and often looking for fun and novelty in their surroundings.
Contractors who for the past two years have been working on the road to Milford Sound in the South Island have found this to be true. Often, on returning to work in the morning, they have found keas to be moving their cones and equipment onto the middle of the road.
Knowing how clever these birds can be, Kea Conservationist Trust chair Tamsin Orr-Walker has suggested that they either might do this for fun, or even to attempt to slow down passing cars in order to increase the chances of them being given food.

Bird of the Year

It should not be a surprise that conservationists have developed such pioneering methods to keep the keas safe, for it is not only an endangered species, but also a favourite of many New Zealanders.
The kea in fact came top of the pecking order in New Zealand’s bird of the year competition in 2017, receiving 7,311 votes to soar ahead of the native wood pigeon, the kererū, which came second with 4,572 votes.
Despite these signs of support, the kea however remains divisive, as some who live and farm in New Zealand’s Southern Alps do not enjoy their notoriously cheeky behaviour which sometimes amounts to damaging vehicles and property and taking food.

Three-Pronged Threat to the Kea

Unfortunately, the kea is now classified as both ‘Nationally Threatened’ and ‘Nationally Endangered’ under the New Zealand Threat Classification system. Though their natural habitat is vast, where once there they numbered in hundreds of thousands, there are currently fewer than 5,000 within the 3.5 million hectares of mountainous forests in the South Island.

Orr-Walker suggests that the three main causes of the threat to the kea population are introduced species, lead poisoning, and their interactions with humans. Lead poisoning, Orr-Walker admits, is a difficult problem to illuminate quickly, as there are thousands of old-fashioned alpine dwellings and huts dotted around in remote areas with lead roofing which the inquisitive kea would likely come into contact with.
However, by keeping keas entertained and stimulated with the activities which these roadside gyms will provide, the Kea Conservation Trust will be able both to limit the amount of fatalities caused by cars and by inappropriate food being fed to them, whilst also alleviating some of the concerns of those who consider the bird at times to be a nuisance.


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