The kea is one of New Zealand's most popular, and infamous, birds.
The kea is one of New Zealand’s most popular, and infamous, birds. Public Domain

Standing 19 inches tall, the kea is a stately, olive-green parrot native to New Zealand’s South Island, with a big beak that curves like a scythe and bright orange feathers under its wings. Between 3,000 and 7,000 birds remain in a habitat that stretches over miles of the island’s forested fjords and mountains. They are fiercely intelligent, mischievous, and clever—wont to strip the rubber from car windshield wipers or meticulously remove the insulation from power lines. Near the entrance to Milford Sound, that impish spirit has been getting them in trouble. They’ve been redirecting traffic.

New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) staff were mystified to find traffic cones scattered around the entrance to a local tunnel, far from where they had originally been placed. Footage from tunnel cameras revealed that kea were pushing the cones around and repositioning them—likely baffling drivers in the process. The particular culprits seem to have been a group of jovial young males, who, not unlike their human equivalents, seem to enjoy goofing around with traffic cones. To reapply their youthful energy to less potentially dangerous ends, the Otago Daily Times reports, NZTA has set up a “kea gym” by the roadside, with objects, contraptions, and puzzles to distract the birds from the road. (This is not so different from tossing some restless teenagers a football or giving a bored dog a puzzle toy.)

A video screen grab shows the birds exploring their new gym.
A video screen grab shows the birds exploring their new gym. Courtesy DOC

The gym itself is decked out with ladders, flotation devices, swings, and climbing frames, and the whole thing gets rearranged regularly to hold the birds’ interest. In the meantime, the University of Canterbury is keeping a close eye on them—not for signs of delinquency, but to learn more about what kea find stimulating. There’s got to be more to life than mischief.