Adult kea feeding on sheep at night in winter
Invincible Valley, Glenorchy
Photographed by Rod Morris
Courtesy of Rod Morris

Kea and sheep

Their taste for meat has got kea into serious trouble. At night, the birds sometimes ride about on the backs of sheep and tear into the sheeps' flesh with their powerful bills, causing death. Sometimes the kea panic the sheep, which dash themselves to death over cliffs. Many upland farmers claim that kea kill up to 500 of their sheep in a season.

For many years these birds were classed as noxious animals, and a bounty of ten shillings a beak was paid for them. Angry farmers killed thousands of kea - at least 150,000 have been shot or poisoned over the last 130 years. One farmer shot sixty-seven kea in a single night.

In 1986, the kea was made a protected species. These days, farmers and shepherds having trouble with kea are encouraged to phone the Department of Conservation (DoC). DoC removes offending birds and releases them well away from sheep. Some marauders end up in zoos.

Scratches looking like kea beak marks have been found on moa bones taken from a Canterbury swamp. Perhaps, long ago, kea rode on the backs of moa trapped in swamps, and ripped into their flesh the way they do today with sheep.