Keeping Happy Feet: The keys to breeding success of the white-flippered penguins

Flea Bay, home to New Zealand’s largest Blue Penguin breeding colony. CC BY-ND 2.0; photo by Ben Cooper

Over the hill and not too far away you can find the charming seaside town of Akaroa. With its rich Maori, French and British colonial history, stunning views and relaxed atmosphere this is a popular location for locals and tourists alike.

For the more relaxed visitor, there are numerous restaurants to choose from, shops to browse and sunny spots to enjoy the views. The more adventurous visitor may be attracted to the nature tours, day walks or water sports, while those who stray from the beaten track and take the Pohatu Plunge will be heavily rewarded. One of the nature attractions on Banks Peninsula are the penguins.

Penguins are well known for sliding around on the snow and ice in Antarctica, but their reign extends far beyond the cold climate of the deep south. There are 18 species of penguin, all of which are native to the southern hemisphere, although the Galapagos Penguin lives just below the equator and a number of species in the temperate zone.

Locations around the world where penguins are found. A large number of species are found around Antarctica, with others found around New Zealand and Australia, along the coasts of Chile and Africa, with another species found at the Galapagos Islands. CC BY Juan Pablo Bravo.

Six of the 18 penguin species live in New Zealand and the species found around Canterbury are called little penguins, Eudyptula minor. They are the smallest penguin species and have grey-blue feathers that cover their backs and white feathered fronts. The Penguins found only on Banks Peninsula and Motunau Island are called white-flippered penguins and are distinguishable from other little penguins by a white band of feathers around the outside of their wing.

The white-flippered penguins have a large colony in Flea Bay, one of Banks Peninsula’s eastern bays. With the help of the Helps family, who farm Flea Bay, these penguins have come back from dwindling numbers over the last 30 years. They have overcome threats to their survival, such as stoats, cats and dogs, fishing nets and other human impacts, with the population continuing to grow.

Growing up on Banks Peninsula, I was familiar with the penguins found within the harbour and outer bays from a young age, but it wasn’t until recently that I found out how special these birds really are.

From 1996 to 2009, the Helps family, assisted by a small team, monitored the penguin nesting boxes that had been installed at Flea Bay. The boxes were monitored to determine the breeding success of the penguins and to determine what leads to the survival of the penguin chicks. It was found that three-quarters of all the eggs that were laid over the 13-year study period hatched. Of the chicks that hatched, 84% reached an age where they were able to look after themselves.

The researchers identified three main factors that lead to higher breeding success for the penguins.

  1. Chicks whose parents spent more time with them
  2. Chicks that were born later in the breeding season
  3. Chicks whose parents spent minimal overlapping time together at the nest box

Due to the extensive predator control work of the Helps family within the bay, predation was not one of the factors that played a part in breeding success, although this is a problem in other locations.

An adult white-flippered penguin in an artificial nesting box made by Francis Helps at Flea Bay. These nesting boxes were used in the study on the factors that affect breeding success of the penguins. CC BY 2.0; Photo by Andrea Schaffer.

The parent penguins would take turns to stay in the nest while the other went fishing, changing over every 1-2 days. When this went on for longer periods of time, the chance that chicks survived increased. The researchers found that in years when there was inadequate food, the parents spent less time looking after the chick, leading to its chances of survival decreasing.

When the egg(s) were laid later in the season, the chances of them hatching and surviing were higher. This was because parents had longer to hunt before the chick hatched as well as warmer temperatures for the egg to develop in.

The longer hunting period before the egg was laid provided the parents with better energy reserves, which enabled them to spend more time with the chick before needing to hunt again. With the egg being laid when temperatures were warmer, the growth and development of the chick in the egg was faster than in eggs laid when it was colder.

The third reason for breeding success was the length of time that parent penguins were together in a nesting box. In nesting boxes where the parent penguins were together for a shorter period of time, the breeding success was found to be a lot higher. The researchers thought that this may be because penguins compete with other pairs for the best nesting boxes which causes a high turnover rate for the pairs. It is not yet known why this is so important for the breeding success of the penguins.

White-flippered penguins are only found in Canterbury, New Zealand, and are very important for the local biodiversity. The work that was done during this 13-year study has highlighted three things that are important for the breeding success of these penguins. To be able to support the population growth of these endangered penguins, we need to know increases their survival chances. Conservation efforts are being carried out to support penguin populations around New Zealand and rely on studies, such as this one in Flea Bay, to provide guidance for the actions that are taken.

These penguins have shown that they can recover quickly from low numbers to become a thriving population with a bit of help and support from dedicated people. The Helps family have set up some donation packages if you want to support the conservation of the penguins. You can choose from adopting a penguin, supporting rehabilitation of sick or injured penguins, helping with predator control and donating to help fund research so the needs of the penguins can be identified and acted on to ensure the survival of this species. More information can be found on the Pohatu Penguins website.

White-flippered penguin in Akaroa Harbour. Photo CC BY-NC by Julie Gillespie

Head over the hill and see for yourself these wonderful little birds and take the Pohatu Plunge!

Julie Gillespie is a postgraduate student in the Master of Science (Environmental Science) at Lincoln University. She wrote this article as part of her assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

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