Little Blue neighbours
They can be found nesting on people’s doorsteps, or quite literally underneath them. Meet the world's smallest penguins, unwillingly urban birds who are being given new homes by local volunteers
Wellington city, a few metres from the water. On the edge of a hot, flat tarmac car park, Kimberley Collins is removing stones from the top of a wooden box, tucked away under a bush. Hinging back the lid, inside is a slate-blue backed penguin about 35 cm long, lying on its belly looking up at her with endearing eyes and a sleek white chin.
The Little Penguin Eudyptula minor, known as kororā in Maori, is the world’s smallest penguin, and when they are not crossing dangerous roads, these unwillingly urban birds are struggling to find shady crevices to nest. Kimberley is a local volunteer who is checking the box, installed by Forest & Bird, whose head office is in the nearby city. Their “Places for Penguins” project, which started in 2007, has so far installed hundreds of nest boxes around Wellington, its harbour, nearby bays and islands, as well as producing signage, awareness work, planting thousands of native plants, and invasive predator control. Wellington’s Mayor has even lent her hand with penguin monitoring.
“Little blues”, although declining in numbers, are a Least Concern species globally (however recent evidence suggests that Australia’s could be a separate species, in which case the threat category could increase). They can often be found nesting all over New Zealand’s coastlines, on people’s doorsteps… or quite literally directly underneath them. This close relationship with humans was not always welcomed, but now most embrace their flippered neighbours – including people like Fraser Ross, who is a long time Forest & Bird member and part of local group Timaru Penguins, on the east coast of South Island. One of many volunteers, he can often be found counting nests or in friendly, explanatory conversation with scores of tourists that line the rocks as penguins arrive at dusk, preventing flash photography, and, when the need arises, checking under cars before people drive away.
“We do not have many here, but what we do have delights the penguin watchers and is an important attraction for our small town”, he says.
Kimberley shuts the lid in Wellington and moves along to the next nest, happy that the Little Penguin is safely incubating an egg this year.
“They walk like little humans and their eyes are so animated, we’re very lucky”, she says with pride.
“But it comes with a responsibility to protect them.” Whilst some countries struggle to get people outside to appreciate nature, it seems ironic that in New Zealand – a country renowned for its outdoor lifestyle – some conservation measures involve ensuring people keep their dogs on a leash, or informing tourists overly eager for a photo that they are actually preventing a penguin from reaching a hungry chick on its nest. It’s far from trivial (at one site in Oamaru dogs were found to kill at least 34% of breeding Little Blues), but with a dedicated network of volunteers, the terrestrial threats to Little Penguins are easier to deal with than threats facing other penguin species. Sometimes it is a matter of a little awareness.
This article was originally featured in BirdLife The Magazine, March 2017, and is now shared as one of a series on New Zealand’s penguins and conservation.
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Thanks to Forest & Bird, Tawaki Project, Timaru Penguins and the West Coast Penguin Trust