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Kea parrots perform domain-general statistical inference (nature.com)
83 points by giorgiop 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 28 comments

Kea are very playful. They're also annoyingly naughty. But they're beautiful and I love them.

Here's a story about Kea I heard from a park ranger when I was in New Zealand. The rangers have traps for non-native predators scattered throughout the park. The traps are basically a big mouse trap in a box (I think.) When going around to reset the traps they found that someone was setting them off with nothing inside. They thought it was hikers. So they set up some cameras.

Instead, it was the keas. They would come to the trap with a stick in their beaks. Then they'd use the stick to trigger the trap. It made a loud boom when it closed. They'd laugh and move to the next trap. They actually have a distinctive laugh (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N37rN29nUIc)

I think they're one of those species, like octopi or maybe elephants, that are a lot smarter than we understand or know how to quantify. It's cool that they're getting the recognition they deserve. Even though they're little bastards.

During the works on the Milford Sound tunnel, the workers kept coming back to site to find their road cones in the middle of the road. They didn't know how this kept happening, so they set up a camera on site.

Kea were pulling the cones into the middle of the road to stop traffic, because when the traffic stopped the tourists would get out and feed the kea.

Douglas Adams joked about dolphins and white mice because he'd never encountered kea...

I dunno if I missed the joke, or it's a funny coincidence.. but Douglas Adams talks at length about Keas in his book "Last Chance to See"

He talks about kea a little there, but a lot more about another weird NZ parrot, the kakapo. I think it's a coincidence (or I missed the joke too).

Never read The Hitchhiker's Guide?

The dolphins leave this message as they leave Earth: "So long, and thanks for all the fish."

Besides the mice the dolphins are the most intelligent species on the planet.

There are some surprising-seeming statements one can make about kea. They are alpine parrots. They are omnivorous parrots. They like to destructively investigate things, anything they can, hiking gear, ski clothing, roofs, cars, helicopters, boats, kayaks, etc.*; if they can take something apart or pull something off, they will. We're kind of lucky they're alpine parrots, and stay away from the cities.

* https://www.keaconservation.co.nz/support-kea/kea-proofing/ Any rubber part like wiper blades or window seals is fun to tear apart, as is accessible wiring. Car rental companies have warnings like this: "Please do not leave any of our convertible hire vehicles unattended in the Arthurs Pass National Park area. Local birds called Keas will likely damage the soft top of the vehicle and this damage will not be covered by your rental insurance." https://www.touchdowncarrental.co.nz/frequently-asked-questi...

There are more-surprising statements about kakapo, relatives of kea, but not their closest. They are nocturnal parrots. They are flightless parrots. They got down to just 51 individuals (now over 200). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kakapo

I have always wondered why the cockatoo screams in this [1] video, when it is the aggressor. I suppose that's the cockatoo's way of laughing?

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRQebpwoOg8

They are like teenage children or young dogs.

The sub r/newzealand has a thing for birds and it cycles though species. It’s mid/tail end of a Kea blitz and this one had me laughing. The behaviour is so unlike any other bird I’ve ever seen. The way it lies there at the end.


> The behaviour is so unlike any other bird I’ve ever seen. The way it lies there at the end.

You obviously haven't watched hours worth of caiques wrestling like I have. Likely because you're a normal person.


I used to live in Arthur's Pass[1] and have a few kea stories.

Like the gangs of young males who would hang out by the public toilets and when a car pulled up to use them, egg each other on to undo the valve caps, then take turns depressing the tyre valves.

Quite a few people ended up with two flat tyres on one side.

Then there was the argument I had with my flatmate who hated smoking, when I kept finding my cylinder shaped ashtray that was outside tipped over with the contents spilled.

I thought he was being a passive aggressive jerk, he thought I was nuts.

One morning at about 6am, I heard a strange noise outside, and snuck out into the lounge, and saw two kea who had tipped my ash tray onto its side and were kicking it back and forth to each other on our concrete patio and having a great time doing so. (I had to make a very sheepish apology to my flatmate)

Or the people I talked to on two separate occasions who had been victimised at the Deaths Corner lookout by a gang who would use one kea as a distraction - it would strut and preen and pose most engagingly and obligingly for the tourist taking photos, while the other gang members snuck up behind the poor tourist to rifle through their bag and steal anything interesting.

The two people were talking to me because they'd lost their passports, last seen being dropped by a kea from a great height into the Otira River [2] beneath a highly unstable rockslide, and were rather hoping we could abseil down to retrieve them, which we had to sadly decline.

Or the poor German who had to flee an alpine pass after kea stole the laces out of his boots, his tent pegs (that were holding down the tent he was in), all his food, oh and they'd also cut the guy ropes on his tent while they were at it. He was traumatised.

All of this is why there's signs everywhere asking people to not, for the love of God, feed the kea.

Firstly, they can become overly dependent on humans for food, which causes them to starve when there's minimal tourists in winter.

Secondly, kea normally spend most of their day exploring and foraging for food. Human food, being wonderfully calorie rich by their standards, removes the need for foraging all day, thus giving them a lot of free time and excess energy to get into mischief.

Love them to bits, apart from when they laugh at me when I arse over on a scree slope, and it's not overly misleading to describe them as flying monkeys with a built-in swiss army knife in the form of their amazingly dextrous and versatile beaks.

[1]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur's_Pass

[2]: https://explorelaughtravel.weebly.com/blog/deaths-corner-art...

Arthur's pass is where I had my best Kea encounter! I made it to the top of Avalanche Peak. The hike just about killed me. As I was sitting there admiring the view and trying to recover, a kea flew in out of nowhere and just hung out with me for about five minutes. It really felt like he was making sure I was ok. But he could have been waiting for me to pass out so he could chew up my daypack.

I knew enough not to feed him. Kea are trolls. You don't feed the trolls.

In case any camera trap folk are here, I'm currently volunteering with the NZ Department of Conservation to build an AI-assisted image sorting tool that speeds up the weeding out of empty images.


This is currently used to assist the conservation efforts of various endemic species such as the kakapo, kea and takahe. (The ML model used is not limited to just these species!)

I was playing around with MegaDetector and it's wonderful. Works surprisingly well, although it does have a tendency to classify tree stumps as animals. Wish it would come with some kind of sequence aware background removal feature.

The authors are currently working on the next iteration of the model which will hopefully come with a few improvements.

AFAIK, they are keen on getting their hands on data that proved difficult for the model -- I suggest you get in touch with them if you think you could help!

Good suggestion, but the data is semi-private and I have no ownership of it. May be worth a shot though, thanks!

This is great. Speaking as a Kiwi, err, "conservation enthusiast": thank you for your work. May I ask: I see you're based in London and I'm curious what motivated you to work on this?

Thanks :) I had been looking to enter the conservation space and at the time I had plans to travel to NZ for tourism purposes. The two ideas kind of merged, and knowing that NZ has lots of cool species I figured I'd check out their conservation department. I sent out an email asking them if they need any help with anything and that's one of the things they were keen to have.

I learned about that just yesterday, watching « Chris Packham's Animal Einsteins » ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000slks ) which might be OP source too :)

Same here! So I went and search for the science source

The inference that I draw from reading the comments is that the world definitely needs more keas!

AI is still far away from being able to solve these tasks, like detecting the separator and understanding its consequences.

Those bird brains had millions of years of evolution to figure those out :)

I watched a program about how under threat keas are from non native predators like weasel's. Hope NZ gets on top of this

Stoats more than weasels (related mustelids though). NZ has no native land mammals (just some small bats and sea mammals like seals and dolphins), so almost any mammal here is an introduced pest, and our native birds have suffered massively, given they didn't evolve for this kind of threat. There are many articles about the goals and process of getting rid of the pests. E.g. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48702762, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/12/22/big-kill

I suspect our willingness to quickly go all-in on Covid elimination owes something to our familiarity with this other kind of biological threat elimination (a much bigger, longer process).

Historically though, the biggest threat to kea in much of the 19th and 20th centuries was people. Some kea peck into sheep's backs, and there was a bounty on them for many years (grrr). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kea

Weasels are just as bad for egg raiding and explosive population growth after a beech mast rodent plague, but not as lethal for the adult birds.

Where can I read more about the colored rectangle plot type used in fig. 1 to illustrate proportions?

I don't think it's a standard plot. It's a cartoon representation of the actual jars containing coloured rectangles that were shown to the birds.

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