Up to this point, we hadn’t really seen any native species, so we decided to visit the Australian and New Zealand sections. We thought we’d been close to the animals with the giraffe and macaw encounters, but we found that the Australian section got us even closer. As with most the NZ birds, the Australian birds (parakeets, parrots, etc.) lived in a large mesh dome with a set of double doors on either side. Visitors entered through the doors (which were rigged so that only one could be opened at a time) and walked through the exhibit on a path. We were restricted to where we could go but the birds were under no such restriction and happily flew about, sometimes a bit close for comfort! We exited the birds straight into an even larger open enclosure, which had a group of wallabies and emus. The wallabies weren’t too keen on being close to the visitors but the emus didn’t seem to mind. They walked along the knee-high fence right by the path and even tolerated people touching them (I’m sure you’re not supposed to do that, but M dared me).
Of course, Australia is full of deadly animals that wouldn’t mix well with people. We swung past some of these, including the recently-arrived Tasmanian devils, on our way to M’s favorite, the penguins! The small group of little blue penguins was in another mesh dome (because it also contained some native cormorants and dotterels) with a rock wall separating us from their pool and beach. One little guy with only one flipper wandered under the wall so we got a nice close look at him—a much better look than we got in the Bay of Islands!
We couldn’t watch the penguins for too long, as the next animal encounter was with the native birds, which of course we didn’t want to miss. The native New Zealand birds live in several huge mesh domes, with a couple of different species in each, roughly divided by habitat. Today the encounter was with the forest species, and guided by the keeper, we and a large group of other visitors climbed up the stairs to a viewing platform high above the ground in the dome. The keeper placed a tray of seeds and fruit in a large feeder in a tree, then opened up a small container of nuts, shook it, and instructed us to back away from the railing of the platform. Summoned by the promise of nuts, a large forest parrot called a kaka landed on the railing, shuffled over to the nuts, crammed a few in her beak and flew away to eat them in peace on a nearby branch. Her mate was more timid and just flew back and forth overhead, clearly wanting in on the food action but not wanting to be the subject of tons of visitor photos. The female didn’t mind, though, and came back for refills on the nuts. Several other birds eventually discovered the food tray, including a native pigeon, a tui, and some parakeets.
The keeper told us that kakas are endangered, but that these two were helpful in boosting the wild population: they had just raised and released a family of five chicks. While the chicks were at the zoo, the keeper explained that they couldn’t hand-feed the kakas lest they teach the chicks to expect foods from humans, which apparently caused the adult kakas to be a bit sulky for a while!
The kakas were cool, but the bird we were most excited to see was the kea. As told by David Attenborough in this video, the kea is one of the smartest birds out there and is insatiably curious, leading them into conflicts with humans on occasion. They are known for destroying hikers’ cars in the mountains where they live, and one of my coworkers, who’s been there, says the only way to stop them is to feed them. Sounds like some smart birds to me!
First, though, we stopped by the native bird dome with the water birds, featuring the whios. These are the birds on the $10 bill, and the world’s only ducks that live in fast, cold alpine rivers. As it was getting late, we were the only visitors to the exhibit at that time (quite nice after being surrounded by loud families all day!). When we arrived, the ducks were swimming about their pool, but they waddled over to say hello. Like all ducks, they just wanted a handout and when they figured out it wasn’t coming, they started honking and chasing each other back to their pool. The other bird in the enclosure, an extremely rare takahe, ignored all this commotion in favor of munching on its own food.
And now it was time for the keas! They live in their own alpine mesh dome with the flightless weka, which they chase about. At first we only spotted a few of the four keas who were perched around the exhibit, seemingly tired out after a long day of being admired by visitors, but then we spotted this guy:
This kea was simply sitting on the rock wall separating us from the rest of the exhibit, and didn’t mind at all people getting up close and personal. I was tempted to touch it, but that beak looks quite vicious in person. It eventually wandered into the hole behind it, but emerged later and ran across the exhibit to get a bit of bark, which it then took back into the hole. Maybe it was building a nest, but whatever it was, it excited another kea, which flew overhead and into the hole. This was really cool as keas have beautiful, vibrant red feathers underneath their wings, which isn’t visible when they’re perched. The keas also seem to prefer to walk around if they can, instead of fly, possibly because it takes less energy.
I was the next target of the kea’s curiosity. One of the keas emerged from their hole and started walking about on the path, wandering closer and closer to me. I knelt down to get a closer look and the kea hopped over to me—or rather, my bag. My bag has handles on shiny hinges, and the kea happily picked up one of the handles in its beak and tossed it around. When it started exploring the fabric of the bag, though, I stood up and spoiled its fun. Sorry kea, but I don’t really want you to put holes in my purse! It looked at me, then wandered off to bully the weka or something. It was an awesome animal encounter and I hope to see some keas in the wild (though if they take an interest in us, I suspect wild keas will be a bit more persistent)!
What tour of the native birds of New Zealand would be complete without seeing some kiwis? They didn’t live in an open air exhibit because they are nocturnal, and so their exhibit is in the night house, along with some native insects and an owl (called a morepork). We had tried to see them earlier in the day, but there were many other families there as well, and the noise and commotion drove the kiwis to hide in their houses. At the end of the day, though, we were one of the only people there and so the kiwis were out and about, rooting around in the leaf litter. Kiwis live in pairs but are fairly antisocial, so the pair we saw stuck close together, but often squabbled and chased each other; kiwis running look very strange! They’re also a bit bigger than I expected, but still small enough that they’re defenseless against off-leash pet dogs, which are a major reason they’re endangered now. I’m glad that we got to see them at the zoo because unlike the curious, diurnal keas, kiwis are shy and nocturnal. Doesn’t mean we won’t try at some point, though!
Clearly, this zoo emphasizes interaction between people and the animals, which makes for an amazing, memorable experience for the visitors and, I can’t help but think, probably enhances the animals’ lives as well. The kea only came close to us because it wanted to, and the open-air mesh dome exhibits are great in that they give the animals that choice. Other animals get the chance to explore the zoo on walks, like the cheetahs and the elephant (it was a bit surreal to glimpse a huge elephant slowly walking along the paths). And of course, the visitors’ experience is enriched as well (it’s one thing to see a giraffe on TV or even across a field, and quite another to feed one an apple), which hopefully translates into more public concern and awareness about our influence on the natural world. A win-win for sure, and an awesome birthday out!