Kea Vs Kaka Vs Kakapo Differences: New Zealand Parrot


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    You might have head about these three iconic parrot species of New Zealand, but do you know their similarities and differences? We discuss them below.

    Parrots are known for their beautiful and vibrant plumage, making them one of the most recognizable kinds of birds. 

    But nestled down at the bottom of the world is a strange group of parrots endemic to New Zealand.

    One parrot family, Strigopidae, separated from other parrots 82 million years ago when New Zealand broke away from the supercontinent Gondwana. 

    Kea Vs Kaka Vs Kakapo

    This geology breakup was before the emergence of modern mammals. 

    The lack of mammals on the New Zealand islands meant that the native birds evolved quite differently than the bird families across other continents.

    The kākā, kea, and kākāpō are members of this family and are much different than any parrot you may know! 

    These three birds are closely related, but each has evolved in differing environments.

    Kea Vs Kaka Vs Kakapo: Summary of Key Differences

    I have tried to tabulate the key differences between these birds below.

    Common nameKākāKeaKākāpō
    Scientific nameNestor meridionalisNestor notabilisStrigops habroptilus
    Weight390 to 560 g (14 to 20 oz)750 and 1,000 g (1.65 and 2.20 lb)0.95 to 4 kg (2 to 9 lb)
    ColorationReddish brown with the greyish-white crown. Green and scarlet underwingsOlive-green plumage with orange underwingsYellowish moss-green
    Dietfruits, berries, seeds, flowers, buds, nectar, sap, plants and invertebrates40+ plant species, beetle larvae, grasshoppers, land snails, other birdsHerbivores – fruits, berries, seeds, pollen, sap
    Social behaviorGregorious and gather in flocksPolyamorous in groups of ~10Solitary with lek breeding system
    DistributionNorth and South Islands (differing subspecies)Southern Alps (South Island)Four isolated New Zealand Islands
    Conservation statusVulnerable – at riskThreatened – Nationally EndangeredThreatened – Critically Endangered
    Population estimate~8000~5000~250

    Description: Size and Plumage

    The kea, kākā, and kākāpō are all incredibly unique parrots of New Zealand. Though they may differ in size and function, they share similar visual characteristics. 

    These three bird species display ample visual differences from one another despite being part of the same family. 

    They each possess unique features based on their evolutionary histories and geographical distribution that help make them stand out from each other when observed in nature or captivity alike!


    The kea is a large green parrot with olive-green plumage that stands out thanks to its conspicuous orange underwings and rump. 

    It has a strong bill with a heavily hooked tip, while the female’s bill is shorter than that of its male counterpart. Juveniles have yellow cere and eyering instead of grey as seen in adults. 


    The New Zealand Kaka also displays shades of green and brown on its plumage with a whitish crown, though the subspecies N.m. septentrionalis is duller with pale gray crowns. 

    Its bill is massive with an elongated upper mandible, while the face of females is browner and their bills are shorter than those of males. 

    The juvenile Kaka has paler eyering compared to adults. 

    Kea Vs Kaka Vs Kakapo
    Note the differences: Kea (pictured left) is green, the KāKā (middle) is green with shades of brown, and KāKāpo has yellow-brown mottling.


    Finally, the Kakapo is known for being the largest parrot without the ability to fly due to having rudimentary wings that appear broad and rounded. 

    Its plumage is mainly green but displays yellowish-brown mottling while having bright yellows on its underparts.

    One distinguishing feature would be its flat, owl-like facial disc which helps it better detect predators during nighttime hours as it is nocturnal in nature.

    Additionally, its legs are long, with feathers covering them up until the talons, which helps keep it warm during cold nights in its native environment of New Zealand.

    Weight390 to 560 g (14 to 20 oz)750 and 1,000 g (1.65 and 2.20 lb)0.95 to 4 kg (2 to 9 lb)
    Length45 cm (18 in)46 to 50 cm (18 to 20 in)58 to 64 cm (23 to 25 in)


    The diets of the kākā, kea, and kākāpō vary significantly from one another.

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      The diets reflect the behavior and habitats of these three avian species: while Keas and Kakas are more active during the day living in temperate climates near forests, valleys, and alpine regions, Kakapos are nocturnal birds found only in lowland forests.

      The diet of the Kea is based mostly on vegetation like:

      • Leaves
      • Flowers
      • Fruit
      • Berries
      • Nuts
      • Buds
      • Woody tissue
      • Mosses and lichens
      • Invertebrates like earthworms and grubs
      • Small vertebrates such as lizards or skinks. 

      On the other hand, Kaka feeds almost exclusively on fruit, but their diet still includes some nectar from flowers or insects occasionally. 

      Meanwhile, Kakapos predominantly feed on fallen fruits from trees like rimu or rata but can also be found eating a variety of fungi growing on tree trunks. 


      The Kākā is very social and gregarious by nature, often seen flying in groups or roosting in trees together at night. 

      This bird also has a curious behavior of visiting humans for food scraps or handouts – something that led to its decline during the early European settlement of New Zealand and still does!

      The Kea is quite adventurous; it has been observed playing with snowballs and exploring tourist vehicles!

      The KāKā is a bit of a clown, and often gets into trouble with humans

      The kea lives in high-altitude alpine regions, usually between 600 – 1800 meters above sea level. 

      The Kākāpō was once widespread throughout New Zealand but now only survives on predator-free offshore islands due to human interference and predation by introduced mammals.

      As the world’s heaviest parrot species (weighing up to 4kg), these birds are neither agile nor able to fly like most birds. 

      Instead, they primarily rely on camouflage for survival against their predators.

      They are also solitary creatures who rarely interact with one another other than during breeding season when male kakapos gather at communal sites known as ‘leks’ for courtship displays similar to those of peacocks or cranes. 

      Overall all three species have adapted different behaviors according to their unique environment. 

      This has enabled them to survive in areas ranging from lowland forests up to harsh alpine regions – a testament to their resilience despite facing destruction over time from human interference, habitat destruction, and predation by introduced mammals.


      The New Zealand parrot family, Strigopidae, is classified into three genera – Nestor, Strigops, and Nelepsittacus. 

      Each of these genera contains different species of parrots which are all endemic to New Zealand. 

      Kākā, kea, and kākāpō are the three species within the two genera Nestor and Strigops. All three species belong to the subfamily Nestorinae within the family Strigopidae.

      Kākā is a large forest parrot native to the South Island of New Zealand, and it is divided into four subspecies – North Island kākā, South Island kākā, Norfolk kākā (extinct), and Chatham kākā (extinct).

      KāKāpos are known for their elaborate courtship rituals, which are, unfortunately, also a reason why it is so hard to increase their numbers.

      Kea is a large species of parrot found in forests, mountains, and alpine shrublands of the South Island of New Zealand. 

      It is the only known mountain-dwelling parrot in the world and one of only two known alpine parrots; it also has an omnivorous diet that consists mainly of insects, fruits, and seeds.

      Kakapo was once considered a genus by itself but was later classified as part of the genus Strigops under the family Strigopidae. 

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        This was due to its distinct features, like having more feathers per square inch than any other bird in the world; it also has vestigial wings, which do not allow it to fly.

        Ecology and Evolution

        These birds have evolved over millions of years in a unique environment free from mammals that have resulted in many distinct traits. 

        The kākā have large wings that allow them to fly quickly and far, giving them an advantage when searching for food or escaping predators.

        The kea is the only alpine parrot species in the world that lives in alpine regions at elevations above 1000 m. 

        Unlike other parrots, they can use tools to get food from hard-to-reach places such as pine cones or bee hives, where they can access honey stores inside trees.

        In fact, Keas are thought to be very intelligent birds. Their animal cognition and their ability to use tools is often compared to that of chimpanzees.

        Kākāpōs are probably the most unusual looking member of Strigopidae due to their large size (about 80 cm) and flightless nature. 

        The kea is the only alpine parrot species in the worl

        Despite this perceived disadvantage, they compensate by being incredibly strong climbers. 

        Kākāpōs feed at night when it is easier for them to find food since they cannot fly away if disturbed during daylight hours.

        This is very unlike other nocturnal bird species like owls which can easily flee when disturbed by using flight rather than climbing ability in order to escape danger.

        The evolution of these three species, separated over 82 million years ago, has led not just to remarkable survivability but also several unique characteristics not seen elsewhere among parrot species around the world

        Some examples are:

        • Flightlessness among kakapo
        • Striking coloration among kakas
        • Tools usage among keas
        • Strong climbing skills among all three species
        • Variety of diets depending upon location, etcetera

        All of this is thanks largely due the lack of mammal competition allowing these birds time enough time to evolve into some truly fascinating creatures!

        Names and Their Meanings

        The name kākā derives from the Te Reo Māori word for ‘parrot.’ The name kākāpō comes from combining two Māori words: ‘kakā’, which means parrot, and ‘pō’, which means night, thus meaning ‘night parrot.’

        The origin of the naming of Kea is less clear. It is most often thought of as onomatopoeic due to its distinct call “kee-aah.”

        The names of these three species are reflective of both their physical characteristics as well as their behaviors.

        As an iconic part of New Zealand’s native fauna, these species possess not only distinct conservation value but also carry important cultural meaning for Māori people.

        It is reflected through the traditional language used to describe them – ultimately preserving an important connection between nature and culture in Aotearoa today.

        The Kea is probably named after the distinct “kee-aah” sound it makes

        Cultural Significance

        The kākā is an important part of Māori culture due to its significance in the tauparapara and mihi

        Its loud call is a symbol of strength and continuity, with its voice representing the importance of communication within the Māori people. 

        Feathers from kākā were also used for various purposes, such as weaving items like cloaks and dress capes. 

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          The feathers were also used to decorate the head of the taiaha weapon prior to battle. Kākā was also hunted for food; their flesh was enjoyed by many Māori tribes as a source of sustenance. 

          The presence of keas has also been linked with the spiritual realm; sightings can be interpreted as a sign that departed ancestors may be visiting or watching over those still living. 

          KāKāpos are nocturnal.

          The kākāpō is considered a taonga (treasure) due to its endangered status. 

          In ancient times, kakapōs were hunted for food by various tribes in New Zealand; however, nowadays, they are more often admired from afar or studied by researchers who hope to protect this species from extinction.

          The skins of kakapōs were used to create cloaks and dress capes exclusively reserved for wives and daughters of chiefs – further highlighting their rarity and importance within traditional Māori culture.

          Threats and Conservation

          The parrot family Strigopidae is one of the most threatened bird families in the world, largely due to human-induced habitat destruction and the introduction of invasive predatory species such as:

          • Cats
          • Rodents: rats and mice
          • Mustelids: weasels, stoats, and ferrets
          • Dogs

          Since the species evolved without ground-based predation, they have been unsuccessful in adapting to the presence of mammalian predators. 

          As a result, this has led to drastic population declines for all three species.

          The kākā is currently classified as ‘At Risk’ by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, and it is estimated that there are only around 8,000 birds remaining in the wild.

          Kakapos are currently classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the Department of Conservation, and there are only 250 birds remaining in the wild; they are only found on a few offshore islands.

          All three birds have very few numbers left in the world today.

          Keas have also been classified as ‘At Risk’ and are estimated to have a population of around 5,000 birds in the wild.

          In order to protect these birds from extinction, conservation efforts are highly focused on pest control operations, as well as research and recovery projects by the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

          Frequently Asked Questions

          What do the kea and kākā share?

          Both the kea and Kaka are endemic parrot species found in New Zealand. 
          They both have a distinctive call and can be identified by their bright green feathers.

          What is a flock of kākā called?

          A flock of kākā are most often referred to as a flock. 
          However, they are sometimes affectionately called a ‘hoon’ of kākā – referring to their boisterous natures, especially in large groups.

          Why is kākā called kākā?

          Kākā means ‘parrot’ in Māori. The word is probably derived from kā, which the Māori use for screeching sounds – and probably references the screeching sound of the kākā birds.

          What is the difference between kākā and kākāpō?

          Kākā and kākāpō are both parrot species endemic to New Zealand. The Kākā is found in both the two main islands (North and South) and inhabits forest habitats. 
          Kākāpō are only found on a few offshore islands, and while they also inhabit forests, they are flightless and solitary.

          Wrap Up

          Kea, kaka, and kakapos are three of the most iconic bird species endemic to New Zealand. 

          While they all look quite similar at first glance, these birds have many distinct differences in terms of their behavior and habitats. 

          All three species are highly threatened due to human-induced habitat destruction and the introduction of invasive species that hunt them and against whom these birds have not evolved any natural defenses.

          However, with the help of conservation efforts such as pest control and research projects by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, we can ensure that these beautiful parrots will continue to thrive for many generations to come.

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          Photo of author

          Sophie Jeffares

          After an early start in the veterinary industry and as a conservation educator at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, Sophie has since been a successful Zookeeper and Conservationist, specializing in native New Zealand species. She now works in a unique wildlife sanctuary in New Zealand.

          When she’s not bird-watching in native forests or crawling through the underbrush searching for rare species, she can be found with her farmer husband and labrador, Jellybean, on their sheep and beef station, far from civilization.

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