Unique parrot’s special friend

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It’s terrible to think that New Zealand’s colourful native kea, one of the world’s most intelligent birds, is on the endangered list.  Someone doing their level best to change that is Tamsin Orr-Walker, who talks to PHILIP CHANDLER about her fascination with the alpine parrot, notwithstanding the bad rap it occasionally gets

Wednesday was more than special for Queenstowner Tamsin Orr-Walker.

The biggest champion of the world’s only alpine parrot, the endangered native kea, was
officially inducted as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

‘‘The thing I find so heartening is it’s for services to kea conservation, so that’s the first
time it’s actually been acknowledged that that’s important,’’ she says.

Orr-Walker first got fascinated with kea when working with them in the native fauna
section of Auckland Zoo.

She then did a degree in applied animal technology, relating to conservation and animal welfare, in particular, then in 2010 developed a kea husbandry manual on improving the management of kea held in captivity.

In 2006, she and three others founded the Kea Conservation Trust, which she chairs to this day.

‘‘Then of course I kept coming down here more and more, sometimes five times a year, so in the end I decided to move.’’

That was in 2014, and she’s now happily ensconced at Arrow Junction.

Beyond running the trust and coordinating research projects, she’s the community
engagement coordinator for the lower South Island.

Asked what attracts her to kea, she says ‘‘they’re incredibly intelligent and they’re very
charismatic’’.

‘‘It’s very unusual to have wild animals actually want to interact with people and I think we’re very lucky to have them, and they’re in a fantastic environment.’’

Unfortunately, they’re still a highly-endangered species.

‘‘We’re looking at about 3000 to 5000 birds remaining, but the thing is people think there are a lot more than there are because they’re so in your face.’’

Who knew, for example, that there are only about seven left on Queenstown’s Remarkables range?

‘‘This area, in particular, has been quite hard on kea.

‘‘The last permit to shoot kea was given out in 2009 and another was applied for in 2010, and we got involved with that issue — that was a kea attacking sheep.’’

Orr-Walker explains predation — from the likes of stoats, possums, rats, feral cats and ferrets taking eggs, chicks and even adults — is a major factor in their population diminishing.

And so is lead poisoning from buildings built before the ‘90s.

But humans can also be blamed — particularly, people who feed them.

‘‘Our key messages are not to feed kea, because that encourages them to scrounge, and they get in trouble with people.

‘‘What happens in Arthur’s Pass [in Canterbury] is people will feed them and then the birds are hanging around where vehicles park, and a lot of them get hit by cars.

‘‘And we’ve had shootings happen as well because people get exasperated with them coming down and pinching stuff or damaging their property.’’

Appallingly, about 150,000 were shot due to a government bounty on their beaks over a
100-year period, mainly because of their interactions with sheep — pecking at the fat around their kidneys, sometimes with fatal consequences.

‘‘There’s fossil evidence to show the same sort of scratch marks on the [extinct] moa, so they just transferred that to sheep.’’

Despite her amazing work, Orr-Walker, 54, admits she’s mostly unpaid.

‘‘But for the last couple of years, I have been paid in a manager’s position, one day a week, and that’s it.’’

Her trust runs on only about $120,000 a year — fortunately, money for the coming year was locked in before Covid.

‘‘We have no overheads because we don’t have an office — I work from home.’’

Her main income’s from renting out an old cottage on her property.

Not that she’s complaining — ‘‘conservation doesn’t pay that much’’.

It’s another reason her Queen’s honour, presented at Millbrook Resort, is so richly deserved.

scoop@scene.co.nz