How can you tell when you’ve truly bonded with a community far from your home? For me, it was my stunned reaction to this headline: Kaka conflict: conservation icon to pest, in an opinion piece written by a local conservation biologist and professor.
The word “pest” in New Zealand usually has very specific connotations: introduced, invasive, requiring eradication. Possums, stoats, and rats are some of New Zealand’s classic pests, threatening native species through predation or destroying vegetation, and every effort is made to eliminate them. The kākā, (Nestor meridionalis) though, is an endemic parrot that was once common in the Wellington region but was extirpated here for over a century due to forest clearing and introduced predators. In 2002, 6 birds were brought from the Auckland Zoo to Wellington’s Zealandia ecosanctuary, where they were banded and monitored as part of a breeding program. This proved successful enough, with over 200 birds now living in the Wellington region, that chick banding was finally halted this year. Kākā are back, and thriving both inside and outside the sanctuary.
These large, loud, red-brown birds have become my alarm clock, their shrieking calls echoing at dawn as they fly back and forth across the valley outside my window. I watch them in the evenings flying to roost in the big Monterey pines above the house, and in the afternoons foraging through the fruit trees in the neighbors’ yards. I find it amazing that their population has managed to rebound so successfully, and that they have adapted so well to humans’ urban and suburban habitats.
They are also foraging on non-native trees (pines, cypress, and eucalyptus) in the Botanic Gardens (by chewing through the bark to get at sap and insects) and the roofs of people’s houses. But this seems to me (admittedly here a non-resident, non-homeowner) less a call for heavy-handed management of the birds, and more a challenge to creatively coexist by managing human spaces and behaviors. Kākā are bold and have quickly learned where humans will feed them, much as their mountain cousins, the kea, have done in the South Island.
Maybe humans need better training in constructing houses and planting native trees that don’t lend themselves to parrot damage, as well as a strong message that feeding wild parrots is asking for trouble – for the birds’ health and the home-owners’ property.
The main argument for the kākā’s removal or control seems to be that they should not be considered true urban animals: that they are inherently forest creatures who subsist entirely on the food they glean from trees, they were not here when the city arose, and they won’t obey the human rules of city living.
The Zealandia sanctuary reintroduced what some consider an artificial population that supposedly would not normally have settled as they have in Wellington. While kākā are far from being dangerous to humans, they are already being targeted as harmful to human structures deemed culturally significant, and it isn’t hard to imagine this “pest” discourse gaining traction as the population grows.
So, what happens when the effort to sustain New Zealand’s embattled biodiversity faces the effort to preserve its cultural icons? I will not be here to see how this plays out, but I suspect it will be a protracted conflict whose result will inevitably hinge on economic factors. In any case, the pro-kākā outcry in the comment section that followed this article is confirmation that after 4 months of living in Wellington, I share more than just my urban experience with my neighbors. I will depart Wellington as a full-fledged member of the kākā fan club. And I will miss my shrieking alarm clock.