Blue duck/whio

The blue duck is a river specialist which inhabits clean, fast flowing streams in the forested upper catchments of New Zealand rivers. Their Maori name is whio whio, and they are found nowhere else in the world.

They are believed to have appeared at a very early stage in evolutionary history. Their blue duck's isolation in New Zealand has meant that it has a number of unique anatomical and behavioural features.

Battle for our Birds logo.

Quick facts

  • Population: Under 3000
  • Threat status: Nationally vulnerable
  • Found in: Clean, fast-flowing rivers in the North and South Islands
  • Whio are rarer than some species of kiwi
  • The whio features on our $10 note
  • It is one of a handful of torrent duck species worldwide and only lives on fast-flowing backcountry waterways.
  • Nesting along the riverbanks, they are at high risk of attack from stoats and rats.

Predator plague

Blue duck/whio is at risk from a predator plague caused by high levels of seed production ('beech mast') in 2014.

Battle for our Birds protects whio and other native species from predators.

Whio Forever

Genesis Energy is partnering with DOC to save whio/blue duck through the Whio Forever Project.

Genesis’ contribution over the next five years will ensure that all aspects of the Whio Recovery Plan 2009-2019 can be implemented. This will effectively double the level of work at recovery sites. Genesis is also providing technical expertise and staff support for the recovery and monitoring work.

Whio and chicks. Photo: Tyronne Smith.
Whio and chicks

More about whio/blue duck

Territory

Blue duck establish exclusive territories. Strong pair bonding results in individual pairs occupying the same stretch of river year after year which they aggressively defend against other blue duck, as well as grey duck, paradise duck and even shags or gulls.

The larger (1,000 gram) males can live for up to 12 years but smaller (750 gram) females are generally much shorter lived.

Where are they found?

Whio/blue duck. Photo: © Sabine Bernert.
Whio/blue duck have a number of unique anatomical and behavioural features

The pre-European fossil record suggests that blue duck were once throughout New Zealand. They are currently considerably less widespread being limited to the less modified catchments of the Urewera, East Cape and central areas of North Island, and along the West Coast of South Island from Nelson to Fiordland.

There is growing concern for the species as most studies suggest that this already reduced range is continuing to contract. Remaining populations tend to be fragmented and isolated, have low reproductive success and are increasingly dominated by males. It is estimated that about 640 pairs remain on North Island while just under 700 pairs remain on South Island giving a total population of between 2,000 and 3,000.

Physical features

  • Blue ducks have unique features such as streamlined head and large webbed feet to enable them to feed in fast moving water.
  • The upper bill has a thick semicircular, fleshy ‘lip’ that overlaps the lower bill allowing them to scrape off insect larvae that cling to rocks, without wear and tear.
  • The male makes a distinctive high-pitched aspirate sound – “whio”, contrasting with the guttural and rattle-like call of the female.
  • Adult length: 530mm; males 1000g; females 800g
  • Blue ducks moult between December and May.

Behaviour

  • They are mainly active during early morning and late evening periods, hiding during the day in log-jams, caves and other such places – some populations have adopted an almost nocturnal existence.
  • Blue ducks vigorously defend their river territories all the year round. The size of each pair’s territory can vary (average is about 1.5km) depending on the quality of the habitat and food available.

Whio/blue duck. Photo: © Sabine Bernert.
Whio/blue ducks have unique features such as streamlined head and large webbed feet to enable them to feed in fast moving water

Nesting

Blue ducks nest between August and October, laying 4-9 creamy white eggs. The female incubates the eggs for 35 days and chicks can fly when about 70 days old.

Nesting and egg incubation of four to seven eggs is undertaken by the female while the male stands guard. Nests are shallow, twig, grass and down-lined scrapes in caves, under river-side vegetation or in log-jams, and are therefore very prone to spring floods. For this, and other reasons, their breeding success is extremely variable from one year to the next

Habitat

Whio/blue duck. Photo: © Sabine Bernert.
Whio/blue duck are mainly active during early morning and late evening periods

Blue duck require bouldery rivers and streams within forested catchments which provide high water quality, low sediment loadings, stable banks and abundant and diverse invertebrate communities.

With such habitat requirements, blue duck are key indicators of river system health. The higher the number of breeding pairs of blue duck on a given stretch of river, the greater the life supporting capacity of that river.

A few reasons why the whio is so unique:

  • It is one of only three species amongst the world’s other 159 waterfowl that live year round on fast-flowing rivers. The others are found in South America and New Guinea.
  • In contrast to other waterfowl, blue ducks obtain all their food (consisting almost exclusively of aquatic insect larvae) and even rear their young, in the fast moving rapids and riffles of their home territories.
  • Where blue ducks still reside in middle-river habitats, population densities and productivity are much higher than in typical headwaters. It is likely therefore that the upper-river habitats where blue duck are mostly found today are not preferred but sub-optimal habitats.

Threat classification

The Department of Conservation species threat classification of blue duck/whio is "Nationally vulnerable".

Blue duck are recorded by the International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN) as "Endangered" because it has a very small and severely fragmented population which is undergoing a rapid decline owing to a variety of factors, most notably the affects of introduced predators.

Find out more about threats to whio and how you can help.

Blue duck/whio sound recording

Listen to or download a recording of blue duck/whio song (MP3, 1,342K)
1 minute 24 second recording of a blue duck/whio adult pair swimming in a stream communicating and answering tape recorded calls.

Find more bird song recordings.

Help with files: see Open and save files.
Copyright of files: Song files may be reused as long as you attribute the work to the Department of Conservation. Read our Copyright terms.


Related links


Viewing documents on this page

Some documents are currently only available as PDFs or other files such as Word or Excel. If you can't view these files get in touch with the listed contact or a DOC office to request another format or a hard copy. About PDFs and other alternative formats.


 

Find out more

Learn more

New Zealand Birds Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand birds

Contacts

DOC's 24 hour emergency hotline:

0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)

Call to report sick or injured wildlife, and whale or dolphin strandings.