A wildtype and
golden kea perching on a branch
Johannes Gerardus Keulemans
A ferocious parrot, feared and hunted by farmers for decades. It is the notorious reputation of the kea (Nestor notabilis, Gould, 1856), the world's only omnivorous and alpine parrot. In 1904, Johannes Gerardus Keulemans, one of the very best bird illustrators, made a unique watercolor of these remarkable birds. We are happy to say that this beautiful watercolor is on view in our gallery at 1016 Madison Avenue, New York (ill. 1).
Kea are known for their great intelligence and curiosity, both vital to their survival in a harsh mountain environment; they are even capable of preparing and using tools. The bird is endemic to the South Island of New Zealand. Their name “kea” derives from Māori and is most likely an onomatopoeic representation of the bird’s in-flight call.
When farmers moved to higher ground in the mid-1860s, their sheep began to suffer unusual wounds on their backs. The cause turned out to be kea using their powerful, curved beaks and claws to rip through the layer of wool and eat the fat from the back of the animal. In order to stop the kea preying on livestock, the government paid a bounty for kea bills and in the following hundred years more than 150,000 were killed, until the bounty was lifted in 1970. By then, however the kea population was left to only 5,000 birds, consequently receiving full protection. Nowadays, the parrot is still considered endangered due to treats of introduced predators, lead poisoning, and pesticides. The birds' naturally trusting behavior towards humans has made them a popular tourist attraction, although their cheekiness and mischievousness also results in trouble-making behavior, such as the chewing of rubber from cars.
Even though Keulemans illustration for A history of the birds of New Zealand shows the notorious reputation of the kea, (two birds attack a sheep in the background), Keulemans made a remarkable, elegant, and lively watercolor of this parrot species in 1904. Both kea stare directly into the beholders eye, the one in the back slightly lowering its head as if it were listening, creating an intimate dialogue with the viewer. We strongly believe this watercolor was intended for Walter Lawry Buller’s Supplement to the ‘The birds of New Zealand’ (London, vol. 2, 1905). The watercolor is made one year before the publication of the book. It has many similarities with Keulemans watercolor of kaka, made in the same year and illustrated in this Supplement. It also shows a variety of the parrot species. By positioning the birds from a lower angle and depicting the front one with slightly stretched wings and a spread tail, Keulemans was able to feature the bright orange and yellow feathers on the undersides of its wings, which would not have been seen otherwise. These vivacious colors starkly contrast the duller brown and olive green of the rest of its plumage. The second parrot has an unusually bright yellow pigmentation. This mutation is known as xanthochromism, hence the name ‘golden’ kea. This bird belonged to Buller’s son, as can be read in the Supplement:
“About seventeen years ago a beautiful yellow Kea was obtained in the Wanaka country in the far South. At that time there was a Government bonus of two shillings a head for Keas, as the bird had been proving very destructive to the sheep. (…) In consequence of this persistent slaughter they rapidly grew scarcer (…). When, however, the killing fever was at its height, one of the men, on delivering his tale of beaks, said: "I shot to-day the queerest Kea I ever saw— all yellow!" (…) This beautiful specimen has since come into my son's possession. The whole of the body-plumage is vivid canary-yellow, deepening on the neck, sides of the body and rump into a rich orange-yellow; most of the scapulars and the quills are of the normal colour, except the first primary in each wing which is yellowish-white; tail-feathers canary yellow, excepting two of the outer lateral ones, which are partly normal; lining of wings delicate orange. Here and there, especially on the head, there is a feather or two of the normal colour.” 
Golden kea were scarce in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The killing of kea and higher prices for these specimens made mutations even more exclusive. Nowadays only one golden kea in the wild exists. With this watercolor, it seems like Keulemans actively tries to positively change the reputation of the kea, by showing the beauty of the parrot in a way that has not been done before.
Description provided by Sandra van der Sommen, a specialist in bird prints and watercolors. Sandra received a BA with a specialty in prints and printing techniques from Leiden University. Her broad interest in nature – specifically ornithology - is the source of her curiosity in Natural History prints, drawings and books from the 15th till the mid-19th century. For her thesis she researched the monograph Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux de Paradis (1801-1806) by François Levaillant (1753- 1824), with a focus on the bird-of-paradise engravings. These birds were illustrated by Jacques Barraband (1768-1809). Barraband is considered to be the best bird illustrator of his time. Sandra has worked with the extensive watercolor collection at Arader Galleries, providing in-depth descriptions of ornithological works.
Please contact Sandra at (212) 628 – 7625 or send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a viewing of this work, or visit Arader Galleries at 1016 Madison Avenue, New York, NY.
 Walter Lawry Buller, Supplement to the ‘History of the birds of New Zealand’, London (1905), vol 2, p. 76, 77.