New Zealand Penguins Problematic
Inside the Outdoors, July 09, 2010

The wonderful thing about writing about the great outdoors is that the subject matter is limitless. With that said, it is always great to know what is happening in our neck of the woods, so to speak, but every once in a while, someone brings something to my attention that bears sharing with my readers. Today’s column is one of those times.

It was back in June a story was related to me concerning my nephew who had just moved into a beach house along the waters of New Zealand. To most of us, that would be a dream, especially if we wanted to spend some quality time vacationing overlooking the ocean, watching the tide as it made its way inward to the shorelines along the coast.

So what happened to Andrew was quite contrary to his expectations, but he learned to grow used to it.

The blue penguins would go about their merry way, foraging on schooling fish, squid and crustaceans doing the day, and then come back at nightfall and crawl under his house where they’d live. This is how the movie, stage assistant told the story:

“The penguins are INSANE.” They are so loud,” he began. But then he went on to add, “They are actually really interesting,” he pointed out. “During the day they go across the road and swim to find food, and then in the evening they return. They make their way across the passageway, which is close to my house, walk up the steps and around back where there is a small gap underneath it. There they crawl under and go into their burrows that they have built. They are so shrill and shriek and stuff. It’s just so amazing to hear such loud noises out of such small animals,” he explained.

And small they are. These animals stand approximately 10 inches tall and weigh a little over two pounds. According to www.penguin.net.nz, their “plumage is slate-blue with a bright white belly. Both sexes are alike, although the male is a little heavier and usually has a larger bill.”

The website goes on to say, “There are several distinct races of blue penguins. Perhaps the most distinct is the ‘white-flippered’ species of Canterbury, however genetic tests have shown it not to be as distinct as its plumage would suggest.”

This little penguin, known to be the smallest, is rarely seen. As Andrew told me, it only comes ashore under the cover of darkness. He stated that it lives in burrows. It is there that they not only live, but breed as well. But they will also make use of any man made cavity. It is not uncommon to find them nesting under buildings, stacks of wood or even railroad tracks.

Depending on where they are, these blue penguins communicate to others using a variety of calls. The sound Andrew was describing is known as crooning. This lets neighbors (and people trying to sleep above) know they are home. Vocal advertising for mate attraction and declaration of territory is known as brays. When they call to each other at sea, they make a barking noise.

Blue penguins in New Zealand have rather variable breeding seasons. The core egg-laying period for most of the country is from September to November. During that time, one clutch or one dozen eggs are laid. In Otago, laying takes place from May to February. Up to two clutches may result.

Blue penguins usually breed for the first time at two to three years of age. Long term partnerships are the norm, but divorces are not uncommon. There is a high rate of juvenile mortality, but individuals can reach up to 25 years of age.

The little animals are very faithful to their home site. Chicks will often return to within ten feet where they were raised. Once settled in an area, they never move away. One percent of juveniles disperses to other breeding sites.

Ferrets, stoats, and weasels are three of the blue penguin’s predators. Many times dogs will intercept them coming from the sea, killing them. Also at Chatham and Stewart Islands, the southern brown skua has taken its toll on penguins returning from the sea.

One final note. Andrew’s landlord decided to fence around the bottom of the house preventing the animals from getting under it. He is now said to be resting comfortably and peacefully, which is welcome, particularly after a hard day’s work laboring as a movie set assistant!

- Paul J. Volkmann
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