Penguins are aquatic birds native to the Southern Hemisphere. There are about 18 known species of penguins, the largest of which are the emperor penguins, the lead stars of the documentary, March of the Penguins. The smallest are our local birds right here on the West Coast.
January 20th each year is Penguin Awareness Day, and considering we share our beaches and forests with two different species of penguin, all up the West Coast, this day is very relevant to us Coasters.
Did you know that we have the World’s smallest penguin living on our beaches and in our forests on the West Coast? The little blue penguin, or Kororā, are found all around New Zealand coastlines and we have a good number of colonies, here on the West Coast. We cannot be certain of exact numbers, however, our mission, with the help of Mena the Penguin Dog, our Great Annual Blue Penguin Count each October, observations from the public and our regular monitoring, is to keep an eye on the numbers and their whereabouts, put things in place, such as nest boxes, signs, fencing and to raise awareness in the local communities, to help protect their future.
The little penguin/blue penguin/kororā stand at approximately 30 cm high and weigh around 1 kg. Despite their size, they are a feisty bunch and do very well at braving the rough West Coast seas, extreme weather and natural predators, to protect their young each year. The threats that they struggle with here on the Coast are the unnatural threats – humans! (cars, dogs, cats, rats, stoats, roads, development).
The next time you drive the West Coast road, or into Hokitika, have a look out for our penguin fences. These fences have stopped many penguin deaths and we hope to keep building more in the areas that are needed. We also have hundreds of nest boxes up and down the Coast, in areas where perhaps there has been erosion or less protection for the birds, to stay protected in breeding and moulting season (June – February).
Blue penguins are labelled as “At risk-declining’ on the conservation status, so we need to keep on doing what we can to protect the smallest penguins in the World.
We also have Fiordland Crested Penguins, or Tawaki, on the south coastlines of the West Coast. These birds stand much taller than our blue penguins at 60cms and weigh 4 times as much at 4kg. Most of the tawaki population reside further south in Fiordland round to Stewart Island and can nest along rocky and forest clad shorelines. These birds do not like to be disturbed by humans, so they tend to find areas that are inhospitable for humans. However they are still affected by us in certain areas, so we are always on the mission to protect these birds as best we can.
Tawaki were classified as Threatened – Nationally vulnerable until recently and Threatened – Nationally Endangered until a few years ago, but with more penguins recorded, largely through Robin Long’s survey work (see 2021 Notornis journal article here), they are now also classified as At Risk – Declining. Classifications are reviewed every three years and can change depending on their changing environmental and very often, the efforts humans put into conservation on one hand or the damaging effects they are having on the other.
Did you know…
- the fastest penguins – the Gentoo – can swim at the speed of 22 miles or 35 kilometers an hour?
- a group of penguins in the water is called a raft but on land they’re called a waddle!
- the black and white (or blue and white in the little penguin’s case) “tuxedo” look donned by penguin species is called countershading – find out why here, and it’s not camouflage!
- most birds have hollow, air-filled bones to help them stay light for flight? However penguins adapted with solid bones instead. This helps them swim and dive down!
- you can find them in Antarctica and Antarctic islands, the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Peru and Chile?
- the only penguin found north of the equator is the Galapagos penguin, found in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. (This means a penguin has never met a polar bear! Contrary to all the cartoons and films!)
Based on previous DNA and fossil evidence, the possible dates for the earliest ancestor of penguins were originally calculated to date back 40 million years ago. However, recent evidence has expanded those dates backwards and changed what we know about the presence of penguins. The oldest penguins might date back to 60 million years ago during the early Cenozoic or late Cretaceous periods. This is 20 million years older than previously thought — and when dinosaurs were wandering the Earth!
They are amazing birds that have been around a very long time! Please help us protect them and keep them around for centuries to come, as they deserve!
Want to help?
Things you can do year round, but particularly between July and February:
- Keep your dogs under control at the local beaches. Do not let them run up into the sand dunes and bushes behind – this is nesting and moulting area for penguins.
- Pay attention on the coastal roads, particularly where there are penguin signs; they may be crossing at dusk and dawn.
- Look out for crossings when driving on the beach, particularly early in the morning and late at night.
- If you see a penguin, keep your distance. Do not approach it and if possible, hide and watch from afar. This way, you will not disturb the penguin, which could potentially lead it to abandon it’s nest and chicks, but also you will enjoy a much longer and fulfilling viewing too.
- If you hear sounds or see tracks, do not follow them up into the bushes, as this will clear the pathway for other predators. Just enjoy the tracks and the knowledge that you have found penguins!
- If you find a sick or injured penguin, please call the DOC hotline 0800 362 468. Please note, at this time, the birds will be moulting, so they will be looking rather scruffy and stressed. They are unable to go to sea for two weeks, therefore unable to eat or drink, making them weak and vulnerable. It is very important at this time that we leave them alone to complete this natural annual process.
- If you find a dead penguin please report it on our database so we know where the dead birds are found – the bigger picture of when and where penguins have died can be invaluable in protecting them. www.westcoastpenguintrust.org.nz/contact/