The Endangered Yellow-eyed Penguin

A Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) in the Curio Bay, New Zealand. Photo by Christian Mehlführer via WikiMedia Commons.

We all like penguins, probably since they’re such unique birds with an aptitude for cuteness. We’ve written about their protection before, even in the same country this post is concerned with, New Zealand. A species that numbers only in the few thousands, the Yellow-eyed Penguin, is clearly at risk of extinction due to habitat and food source loss. Marcel Haenen reports for the New York Times:

DUNEDIN, New Zealand — Only a keen-eyed observer can spot the rare yellow-eyed penguin in the impenetrable forest hills that hug New Zealand’s South Island beaches.

Native to this region, the birds mostly lurk under a canopy of thick shrubs, trees and branches, dashing for hiding places as soon as a human approaches.

Incredibly shy, the yellow-eyed penguin is truly odd. Measuring about 65 centimeters, or just over two feet tall, with striking yellow eyes and a yellow band across its head, it is the rarest species of penguin, nesting in the forest and returning to it. It is also severely endangered.

Despite various measures deployed in recent years to protect this penguin’s flocks, the outlook remains bleak. On average, only 18 of 100 penguin chicks survive their first year at sea. A decade ago, the population was estimated at 6,000. Today conservationists reckon that only 2,000 yellow-eyed penguins are alive.

“This bird could soon become extinct unless urgent protection measures are taken,” said Fergus Sutherland, who for 25 years has been the caretaker of a penguin reserve, Te Rere, spanning 67 hectares, or 166 acres, in the Catlins forests.

The yellow-eyed penguin first got into trouble when large parts of its natural habitat were destroyed in the previous century. Farmers bulldozed and torched the forests where the penguin lived to make way for cattle and sheep. The Te Rere Reserve was founded in 1989, when Mr. Sutherland succeeded in persuading farmers not to destroy the forest on the southern tip of the South Island.

Eventually, reforestation efforts allowed about 120 yellow-eyed penguins to nest in the scrub. In February 1995, however, a fire started by a neighboring farm spread to Te Rere, burning half the population.

Mr. Sutherland regularly checks box traps set in the forest to catch ferrets, stoats and rats that prey on the young, flightless birds, refilling the traps with fresh eggs for bait. The penguins also fall victim to cats and dogs.

Over the summer here, some of the roads to the beaches were closed to the public, to protect the penguins. There are signs warning that “persons causing distress to penguins will be prosecuted,” and the general public can watch the penguins only from special observation huts as they waddle off to sea at dawn, then disappear again into the forest at the end of a day’s foraging.

During the 100-day nesting season ending in February, Yolanda van Heezik, a marine biologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and Jim Watts, a ranger with the Department of Conservation, monitored the condition of seven penguin nests on a beach on the Otago Peninsula.

“Breeding pairs always make their nests out of sight of other penguins,” Dr. van Heezik said.

Mr. Watts visits the baby chicks about 30 times, weighing them regularly even though the task can be hazardous.

“They can use their flippers like a machine rifle and have a nasty bite,” Mr. Watts said. He often hand-feeds underweight chicks a salmon smoothie. Severely malnourished penguins are carted off in a plastic crate to Penguin Place, a special rehabilitation center.

Young penguins often succumb to heat stress, as was the case in December when temperatures reached 95 degrees. And in recent years, many chicks have suffered from avian diphtheria, which causes ulcers in their mouths that make it difficult to eat and breathe.

Read the rest of the original article here.

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