With a trilling laugh, Tiriki the kea cartwheeled in the air and glided down to join his friend Raweke on the bright red roof of the building.
“What’s up?” he asked as his nails clicked down on the tin.
Raweke glanced down at the couple seated at the picnic table. “Sandwiches,” he said, “and maybe a pie.”
Tiriki clicked his tongue against his beak. “What do you think, shall we do a fly-by?”
“Too right,” Raweke replied “You wanna play decoy?”
“I do,” Tiriki bobbed his head. “I am, after all, better at that than are you.” He cocked his head to the side, regarding his friend; Raweke’s feathers, as usual, stuck out at weird angles. “And better groomed too!” he teased.
Raweke clicked his beak at the insult then rubbed the bridge of his beak against the roof. “Okay bro,” he finally agreed, “I’ll do the snatch and grab. What do ya fancy? Sandwich or pie?”
“Sandwich,” Tiriki replied. He glided down to land on the picnic table, attracting the attention of the two humans. A male and female, he noted. A mated pair?
“Oh look,” cooed one. “Is one of those funny parrots.”
Tiriki regarded them out of one eye, cocking his head to one side and hopping towards them, diverting their attention from the food. The male human set down his coffee and moved to pick up his camera. He did it slowly, so as not to scare the parrot.
It’ll take more than a sudden movement to scare me, Tiriki smirked inwardly. That fellow don’t know kea at all.
Raweke descended silently behind them, his wings a whisper against the wind. His feet had barely touched the wood when his beak snaked out and seized the sandwich, plastic box and all. He flapped up into the air. The movement caught their attention.
“Hey,” the female shouted, “thief!”
Raweke could not fly well while carrying the package; it tumbled from his beak, struck the ground a few feet away and sprayed the contents across the grass. Both kea knew humans well enough to know that once the food was on the ground, they no longer regarded it as edible.
“Whoops,” Tiriki chortled. “Better keep your eye on the prize or you can bid it goodbye!” And he flapped off to join his friend.
The two of them ate fast, bolting down the tastiest morsels first – the shredded chicken, the creamy cheese, the plump red slices of tomato. Tiriki turned his beak up at the lettuce. Green stuff was for ducks and rabbits. Small bits gone, he snatched up a piece of bread, flapping up into the trees to savour it. Raweke joined him.
“Not bad, not bad,” his friend chortled. “Flawless, in fact, if I do say so myself. And I just did, didn’t I!” He cocked his head to one side, craning his neck as though hunting for something – or someone. “Now where’s Totoa?” he asked. “Where oh where can my plump brother be?”
Tiriki arched his wings in an avian shrug. “Down by the river, I would say,” he replied. “With Hiwa.”
“Oh,” Raweke sighed. Raweke, Totoa and Hiwa were all nest siblings, and there was a part of Tiriki that could not help but envy them. His sister’s death – she’d been killed by a possum before fledging – had made him an only chick. Now, his parents had moved on; they’d started a new nest up above the tree line. Tiriki wished he had some family of his own. Raweke and Totoa were great – the best gang he could hope for (even if Hiwa did insist on tagging along) but would have liked a brother, or even a sister, of his own.
“Here’s the little feather-brain now,” Raweke exclaimed, as Hiwa came flapping up through the trees.
“There you are,” she panted, crashing onto the branch beside them and sending down a shower of leaves. Hiwa never did anything slowly, nor gracefully. Tiriki wouldn’t be disrespectful enough to call her clumsy, but he couldn’t help but think it.
“What’s up, little sis?” Raweke asked.
“There’s some humans,” she explained, her words falling over themselves in their eagerness to tumble out of her beak. “Down by the river. They’re setting up some sort of contraption. A device. It’s all see-through pipes and levers and bits of wood and rope. It’s pretty weird,” she added. “They’ve got cameras too. Big ones, like the ones they point at their fledglings when they’re playing in the snow. And at us too,” she added.
The kea of the Valley Pass Village were well acquainted with humans and their many toys and other devices. Tiriki had spent countless hours parading in front of cellphone cameras, video recorders and the more regular hand-held device. He was a bit hazy on why, exactly, they liked to point the devices at kea, or human fledglings, or stand in front of them and make funny poses, but one day, he resolved to find out. He did know, however, that if he did something interesting, he could make humans laugh. And Tiriki liked making humans laugh. It was such a funny sound, almost like they were trying to imitate a kea’s chortle – and failing miserably, of course.
The two males followed Hiwa down to the river flats. Totoa, with a couple of the other yearlings, studied the humans from the arcing branches of a neighbouring beech tree. One bird, a large male called Pakari, opened his beak and lowered his head as Tiriki passed too close to him.
“Watch it, powderpuff,” he hissed, raising his wings and flaring his tail feathers in a display of aggression.
Tiriki ignored him; it was easier that way. Pakari had his own gang, and Tiriki and his small flock did their best to avoid them.
Three humans were busily assembling a complicated structure that involved plastic tubing and pieces of wire and wood.
“Looks like we’ve got more of an audience,” said one of the humans – a big male with hair bristling on his chin. “I told you they would come to see what was happening. That’s why we have to set it up here, in front of them.”
The other, a scrawny male with sticking-out ears, sighed. “Well, it’s jolly complicated,” he muttered. “Better hope they figure it out. Otherwise it’s a bunch of money and time wasted.”
“They’ll figure it out,” the third human, a female, remarked. “The captive birds solved it in no time at all. Because these birds are wild, they’ll probably take a little longer – they’re not so habituated to humans setting challenges for them, so it might take them a while to get the confidence to approach it. But I reckon we’ll have some good footage by the end of the day. Possibly even within a few hours, given the attention we’re getting already.”
Tiriki glided down to land on the grass and hopped towards them, trying to see for himself. The glint of sunlight on steel caught his eye. One of the humans had left a tool – a screwdriver – lying beside a canvas knapsack. He sidled over to it, snatching it up.
“See what I mean?” The female laughed, as one of the male humans dropped his length of tubing and ran at Tiriki, waving his arms. “They’re curious, they’re smart. It won’t take long for them to figure it out.”
Tiriki, afraid of being trampled – humans were such clumsy creatures – flapped into the air. The tool was too heavy, too ungainly, for him to get a good grip on. It slipped from his beak and crashed to the grass, where it embedded its pointy end into the turf. He alighted in a beech tree. A moment later, Hiwa joined him.
“Did you see the look on that guy’s face,” she chortled, bobbing her head up and down. “So they’re putting together that toy for us to play with, right?”
“That’s what she said,” Tiriki replied. “I wonder why?”
“They’re humans,” she replied. “They’re as curious as we kea. Not as smart, of course. I’ve been studying them.” She averted her eyes shyly, and ran her beak through her breast feathers. “And I think they’re studying us.”
“Why?” Tiriki wondered aloud. “It’s not like we’re they’re prey. They don’t hunt us any more.” He leaned forward to catch her eye. “Why do you study them?”
“Because they’re everywhere,” Hiwa replied, “and there’s a lot more of them than there is of us. So, I wanna know why they do what they do. Like, why do they point those camera-things at us? I think it must help them see us better, or something. I’m going to get my beak on one of those, one day, and then I’ll find out. And you said they don’t hunt us any more,” she added. “But I’ve heard stories. Those camera-things are okay – but the big long blacksticks…” The shudder passed from head to tail. “Not so good.”
“Right,” said HairyChin, brushing grass clippings from his knees. “Are we ready to get this thing set up and get the cameras rolling?”
Hiwa perked up, her forehead feathers rising. “It’s show time.” She twitched her wings and turned her eye to Tiriki. “You coming?”
The female human slipped a nut into the top of the transparent tube. It tumbled partly down, before coming to rest upon a piece of wood.
“Seems a lot of effort to go to for one nut,” Tiriki commented. “When we could just head back up to the café and get us some sandwiches or cakes or something. Anyway, I’m not even hungry. I just ate.”
Hiwa clicked her beak. “Getting the food isn’t the point,” she tried to explain. “I want to see their reactions when we solve their little puzzle. Can you see how it works?” She didn’t wait for Tiriki to answer, but spread her wings, sprang into the air and glided over to land beside the contraption. The humans had conveniently placed it within a wooden structure, providing plenty of place for claws to grip. She started at the top.
“Your beak ain’t gonna reach it,” Tiriki teased, flapping over to land opposite her. “Short beak,” he jostled her, attempting to hook her beak with his longer one, but she snatched it away and snapped at him.
“We females might have shorter beaks than you males, but we know how to use them better,” she jeered. It was a frequent, friendly argument. To her credit, she did not even try to hook out the seed with her beak, any fool kea could see that it had fallen too far.
The piece of wood it rested on protruded out the side. Hiwa gripped her beak around it and gave a sharp tug. The nut tumbled down to land against another barricade.
“Are you sure they haven’t seen one of these before?” asked BigEars.
“Not to the best of my knowledge,” replied the female. “These are all juveniles – you can see by the yellow around their eyes and bills. Most are probably coming into their first winter since fledging. And no-one else has been studying them here, in that time.” She pushed her sunglasses back up, onto the top of her head, catching the sunlight – and catching Raweke’s gaze. The scruffy parrot’s eyes gleamed. With a flash of his red under-wings, he sprang from his perch and swooped low over the head of the humans. The female, distracted as she was, ducked a moment too late, and he skimmed across her head, hooking the bridge of the glasses with the tip of his bill. BigEars erupted with laughter. Raweke continued his glide, rising to roost atop a slender beech tree. He set the sunglasses carefully across a spindly branch, hooked one side arm over the wood and held them in place with one foot.
Meanwhile, Hiwa twisted the shaft holding the nut in place. It was a more complicated arrangement than the previous one – it had to be turned, not tugged. With a flick of her head, the nut tumbled further. The human female, much to Tiriki’s amusement, missed this show of intelligence; she had run over to stand beneath the tree. She shook the trunk, perhaps hoping the sunglasses might fall into her hands,. Raweke clutched them tighter and trilled with laughter.
“You’re gonna have to try harder than that,” he called down and began to chew on one of the side arms.
“Quit that,” cried the female. “Those were expensive!”
Hiwa’s eyes flicked towards Tiriki, pupils shrinking as she saw his attention directed elsewhere. She followed his gaze and shook her head. “Oh Raweke,” she groaned. Then, “Tiriki!” She hopped onto the perch beside him and snapped at his shoulder. “Quit laughing. We have to stop him. Next thing they’ll be throwing stones. Humans are very attached to their possessions.”
Tiriki caught her beak in his, pushed it away. “Don’t be such a bossy-butt,” he scolded her. “And what about that tasty nut?”
“Oh, who cares about a stupid nut. It’s probably stale anyhow.” She flapped up to join her brother, crashing into the branch with her typical lack-of-grace. It swayed and bobbed; Raweke rose his wings to keep his balance, lifted his foot, and the sunglasses tumbled down into the female’s waiting hands.
Tiriki cocked his head to one side, regarded their antics for a moment, then calmly made his way down the tube, popping latches and sliding bolts, until the nut tumbled out and quickly vanished down his gullet.
Hiwa had been right. It was stale.