The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden holds the largest collection of Kea (Nestor notabilis) in North America. The facility is home to 19 of the 45 total birds in Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) accredited institutions. Locally, nationally, and internationally, Cincinnati Zoo staff has worked to improve captive Kea husbandry standards and reproductive success. They also aim to increase public awareness of Kea reproduction research.
The Cincinnati Zoo’s determination and hard work was rewarded, recently, when it was announced that the facility had received the Plume Award for Noteworthy Achievement in Avian Husbandry, from the Avian Scientific Advisory Group.
The award recognizes excellence in a single facet of husbandry, such as: first-time breeding, reintroduction programs, breeding consortiums, reproduction of a difficult species or taking a leading role in population sustainability. Robert Webster, the Zoo’s Curator of Birds, and the Cincinnati Zoo Bird Department (Kimberly Klosterman, Jennifer Gainer, Cody Sowers, Dan Burns, Aimee Owen, Rickey Kinley, Steve Malowski and Jackie Bray) have worked tirelessly to achieve breeding success with a species known to have reproductive challenges. The Cincinnati Zoo’s Kea program consists of a breeding flock, an interactive exhibit and a partnership with Kea Conservation Trust in New Zealand.
The bird staff credits flocking and free mate choice as key contributors to the success of its breeding program, as well as assistance from many other Zoo departments and devoted volunteers. “Best of all, we are able to share the insights we are learning with captive Kea-holders throughout the world and with the conservationists whose work we support in the birds’ native New Zealand,” said Webster.
During the last three years, the Cincinnati Zoo has successfully hatched 13 chicks, more than any other zoo in North America. 2014 was especially bountiful, with the fledging of six chicks. During the summer, the Kea flock shares the exhibit with several other avian species, including Nicobar Pigeons, Pied Imperial Pigeons, Magpie Geese, and Cape Barren Geese. Most recently the Aviculture department formed a partnership with the Zoo’s Lindner Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) to start a foundation in Kea reproduction research.
“I couldn’t be more excited about Cincinnati Zoo’s success with breeding Kea this year! This flock includes a number of genetically important birds and the population has been struggling with breeding in recent years, so these chicks represent a great move in the right direction. Cincinnati’s unique way of housing and managing Kea in a large flock has proven to be a great combination of guest experience and breeding opportunity for this species,” said Jessica Meehan, AZA Kea SSP Coordinator.
“The international community has great interest in Kea because of their unique ecology, amazing intelligence, and charismatic personalities. There is no other avian species on Earth quite like them,” said Webster. “The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden recognizes that Kea are a wildlife gem and that their loss would be tragic. We have attempted to do everything in our power to ensure that Kea are around for future generations.”
Lead poisoning, mostly from building materials, is also a significant cause of premature deaths among Kea. Research on lead toxicity in Kea living at Aoraki/Mount Cook found that of 38 live Kea tested all were found to have detectable blood lead levels, 26 considered dangerously high. Additional analysis of 15 dead Kea sent to Massey University for diagnostic pathology between 1991 and 1997 found 9 bodies to have lead blood levels consistent with causing death. Research conducted by Victoria University in 2008 confirmed that the natural curiosity of Kea which has enabled the species to adapt to its extreme environment, may increase its propensity to poisoning through ingestion of lead (i.e. the more investigative behaviors identified in a bird, the higher its blood lead levels were likely to be).
Despite being classified as “Endangered” in the New Zealand Threat Classification System and “Vulnerable” in the IUCN Red List, Kea are still deliberately shot and face continued threat in the wild.