A new study authored by the Department of Conservation (DOC) shows many tourists are choosing to feed kea even when they know it’s the wrong thing to do.
The science reveals visitors are often unable to resist the temptation of close interaction with the endangered birds which live in the mountains of the South Island.
Easy meals are encouraging kea to swap their natural habitat for places occupied by humans, especially in the alpine village of Arthur’s Pass in the Southern Alps.
DOC workers there say they’ve had to rescue several birds suffering from lead poisoning after chewing on buildings. Others have had traces of plastic and bubble gum in their gut.
Ranger Laura Young regularly takes blood samples from the local kea, to measure the level of lead in their blood.
“Short-term chronic impacts that we see are kea walking around sort of stumbling, and vomiting and just looking very sickly,” she said.
“You can see these big chunks of lead you are coming out in x-rays, and they can excrete those sometimes, but the rest of it gets absorbed into the bloodstream and into the organs.”
A prime example is a local bird named Toot, which was spotted eating a pie and a muffin at the Arthur’s Pass café on Saturday morning.
“They look quite healthy, but when they die and we send them off for post-mortem examination, they don’t look healthy inside, some of them have great big balls of butter or margarine,” Ms Young said.
“They just look different to wild birds, so very unhealthy.”
DOC science advisor Kerry Weston, who heads the agency’s Kea Recovery Group, is now leading a campaign to educate the public based on the most recent science.
She says their study found many tourists responded better when they found out the birds were a taonga species to Māori.
“We found that people are actually more likely to feed the birds when no one else is around, or if they’re with family or friends, so it sort of indicates that they knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but they just couldn’t resist that temptation,” she said.
Her efforts were appreciated by Fiona Sloan, the Ngāi Tahu member of the Kea Recovery Group.
“These are for our children’s children’s children, and we want them to be around for generations to come,” she said.
“To have our taonga species around, we’ve pretty much got to leave them alone, let them do their own thing in their natural space.”
Signs have now been put all over Arthur’s Pass advising people not to feed the birds, but it will still require visitors to have self-discipline.
After all, kea are clever – and Toot has friends.
“When kea congregate in a place like this, the word gets around and all the kea from surrounding mountaintops come in and it just happens with more and more individuals,” Ms Young said.
Weston added that kea will continue to try and get a free lunch.
“We’re the adults, we’re the humans, and they are kids if you like, and it’s up to us to be responsible,” she said.