Dr. Laura Young is a talented botanist, ultra-runner, mum, and kea enthusiast who chose to dive deep into the study of New Zealand’s most iconic mountain parrots. Read on to learn why she’s so fascinated by kea, what she’s doing for the species, and why we all should pay more attention to the quintessential cheeky tramper’s companion in the hills.

Laura places bands on a feisty juvenile female kea while volunteer Ed Stainsby holds her still.

Laura can trace her keen interest in the natural world back to her days growing up on a small farm in a rural part of the North Island. She became, “fascinated by how things worked in nature, how they fit together and our place in the world as humans.” Exploring the bush as a child and observing insects, mushrooms, and birds led Laura into the study of ecology later in life. Ecology encompasses “almost everything” and is a great fit for Laura who is, “equally as curious about discovering as much as [she] can about individual species as [she is] about [unearthing] their connections with each other and their role in the ecological community and environment [as a whole].” It seems ecology is a good path of study for the passionate and curious naturalists among us.

Laura certainly fits this description. Currently working as a Community Engagement Coordinator for the Kea Conservation Trust, she has previously been involved in research across species conservation, understanding the intricacies of alpine plants, studying lizards, invertebrates, plant-animal mutualisms, threatened plants and general biodiversity work. Despite this breadth of past experience, Laura says that kea work may just be the most rewarding. As anyone spending time in the mountains of the South Island can tell you, kea display personalities rife with charm, humour, and intelligence. Having the privilege of working up close with these “incredible characters” keeps Laura coming back.

A kea in hand for banding. Credit: Mat Goodman

So, what does it mean to work closely with kea? What does the day-to-day look like for Laura? Like anything, it varies greatly. One day can see Laura traveling along the Milford Road with carloads full of interested community volunteers stopping to catch, band, and check the health of kea she encounters. The next day she might be tirelessly inputting data on the computer and writing reports and proposals or planning events. And the next may involve a flight into the mountains to track kea with transmitters followed by an unexpected ground search to urgently check on a mortality signal. It’s all in scope for Laura who researches lead poisoning in kea and how to reverse it, contributes to strategies to reduce human-kea conflict and human impacts on kea, and studies kea movements, behaviour, survival and more.

Laura uses radio telemetry to track kea with transmitters in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.

Laura tests a kea blood sample for lead poisoning.

Laura’s connection with one species in particular, kea, highlights the path that she’s on toward a greater appreciation of nature in general. In Laura’s opinion, “people should care as much as about the nematodes, fungi and bacteria in our soils as they do about charismatic megafauna such as kea (and pandas). Everything has a place, a function and a purpose, a lot of the time serving human needs too.” Connecting with a species might be the way forward for more people to “let the empathy return, care more and do [their] bit to protect biodiversity and our planet.”

Laura with NZ Forest Owners Association at a forestry site near Nelson.

Laura encourages us to get in touch with the natural world and to remember that we can band together and contribute to science and the understanding of longer-term patterns that are taking place in nature. What if you paid more attention to the kea that’s edging up to your pack during a tramping lunch stop instead of just shooing it away?

Our motivations to go into the hills might include challenging ourselves both physically and mentally and either enjoying the rewards of solitude or growing closer to family and friends. Somewhere within these motivations lies also the desire to get close to our natural surroundings. Where we live is unique and interacting with a kea is an experience that can be had nowhere else on earth.

Laura gets up close and personal with a banded juvenile kea.

Next time you see a kea, take a quick look to see if it has plastic identification bands around its legs. If it does and if you can see what’s on them, you can record a sighting of the particular bird on the Kea Database – https://keadatabase.nz – a new citizen science power tool for building a better picture of how many kea there are, where they are distributed, what the population trends are doing over time and how we can best help them. Using the database turns all the “nature nerds” and casual observers tramping in the mountains into scientists with a purpose.

Meridian power station workers with Laura and a kea on a banding trip to the West Arm of Lake Manapouri.

That’s pretty cool and brings us one step closer to understanding the issues that kea face and what can be done about them. Tapping into our natural curiosity for the world around us can do a lot of good – both for those who are currently out there experiencing the NZ outdoors and those that will come after us. As Laura says, to see her daughter’s “primeval fascination with animals, to watch her moved by mountains, feel peace in the forest, play among the snow tussocks, and to be able to watch her keep that with her throughout her life [is] what I live for.”

Kea work is a family affair!

Dr. Laura Young is the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Kea Conservation Trust. If you’re interested in learning more about Laura and the work of the Trust visit www.keaconservation.co.nz.

This article is also part of FMC’s year long focus on Volunteering for Biodiversity:  www.fmc.org.nz/vol4bio   Learn more about contributing through citizen science iniatives like www.keadatabase.nz and other projects on our website.