Yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho

Unique to New Zealand, the hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, is thought to be the world's rarest penguin.

Yellow-eyed penguins are found along the south-east South Island, on islands off Stewart Island, Stewart Island itself, the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island.

Yellow-eyed penguin. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Unique to New Zealand, the hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, is thought to be the world's rarest penguin

Facts

The yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho (Megadyptes antipodes) is named for its yellow iris and distinctive yellow headband.

Adults are grey-blue in colour, with a snow-white belly and pink feet.

Yellow-eyed penguin in dunes. Photo: Rod Morris.
The yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho is named for its yellow iris and distinctive yellow headband

Their chicks are covered in thick, brown fluffy feathers that they shed to fledge at between 98 to 120 days. Their immature plumage has a yellow head band and extends to a yellow head with fully adult plumage when they're 14 - 16 months old.

The species' Māori name, hoiho - noise shouter - refers to their shrill call. Often heard when they encounter others in their colony.

Lifespan: lenghty as some individuals can live up to 20 years and the oldest recorded banded bird was over 20.

Size: adults reach around 65 cm in height and weigh around 5 to 5.5 kg.

Hoiho and chicks.
Hoiho and chicks

Diet: small to medium sized fish such as sprat, red cod, and squid.

Behaviour: the only penguin species that doesn't become tame. Also the least social and a solitary breeder.

Yellow-eyed penguin stories: Watch videos, read blog posts by DOC staff, and check out the latest news about yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho and DOC's work with these species.

Habitat

The yellow-eyed penguin is equally dependant on marine and land habitat, which includes forest and scrubland and, sometimes, grazed pasture. This provides nesting ground as well as loafing space.

Their marine habitat is equally important because it provides food and allows for dispersal and movement between land habitats.

Population and range

Yellow-eyed penguins are found along the south-east South Island, on islands off Stewart Island, Stewart Island itself, the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island.

The total number of individual penguins is estimated to range between 6000-7000. The key figure, however, is the number of breeding pairs.

Yellow-eyed penguin. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Their Māori name, hoiho - noise shouter - refers to their shrill call

In the 1980's research on the Otago Peninsula showed that the number of breeding pairs had declined significantly, leading to fears for the future of the mainland population.

In the 25 years since 1981 there has been dramatic variations in breeding pair numbers in the South Island but recent figures (2006) show that there is very little difference in breeding pairs between 1981 and 2006. Currently there are around 630 pairs on the South Island's south-east coast.

Sound recording

Listen to or download a recording of yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho song.

Yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho adults and chick (MP3, 2,417K)
2 minute 34 second recording of yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho parents calling in the vicinity of the nest and feeding chicks. 

FInd more bird song recordings

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Copyright of files: Song files may be reused as long as you attribute the work to the Department of Conservation. Read our Copyright terms.

Threats

Habitat destruction

Yellow-eyed penguin adult at nest with chick killed by a ferret, Otago peninsula. Photo: John Darby.
Yellow-eyed penguin adult at nest with
chick killed by a ferret, Otago peninsula

Having a half and half existence - marine and land - hoiho need access to a private, scrub- or bush-covered area to breed and nest. Areas adjacent to the coastline that have been burnt or developed for farming or other forms of land development restrict their nesting options.

Yellow-eyed penguins are solitary creatures that seek privacy. Research has shown that the most intensively colonised areas, at around 16 pairs per hectare, are scrub-covered. A stark contrast to open forested areas where occupancy can be as low as .64 per hectare. For this reason a major tool for hoiho survival is replanting coastal sites with native shrubs and plants.

Predation

Chick predation is a major problem and for that reason pest control around nestijng sites is important. The main threats are from stoats and other mustelids, rats, cats and dogs.

Dogs can also worry adult penguins and though they may survive an attack the stress caused in a colony can have a severe impact on chick health and survival. for this reason dogs are banned from entering penguin breeding areas.

Disease

As with all species disease is a threat to the hoiho's survival. In 2004 a new malady struck many of the mainland and Stewart Island populations. A diptheria-like disease, the corynebacterium infection killed 50 per cent of the the chicks in that season. It reappeared in only a few sites in 2005 and losses were minimal.

A new problem was identified during the 2005 season that affected chicks on Stewart Island. This is a blood borne protozoan parasite, leucocytozoon, that ends up in the liver. Malaria-like, it has a winged vector that's presumed to be black fly. This disease is host specific and occurs in over 60 species world wide. Two of them in New Zealand: a fich and the yellow-eyed penguin.

Human interference

In some readily accessible sites the popularlity of eco-tourism is having an effect on nest survival rates. One example shows that where there is extensive human interaction on a beach that adults need to cross to get to their nests and chicks, chick survival can be as low as 0.6. Whereas nearby colonies that aren't accessible have a survival rate of 1.7.

Yellow-eyed penguin. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Threats to the yellow-eyed penguin include habitat destruction, predation, disease and human interference

DOC's work

Past conservation efforts

Yellow-eyed penguin. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
The yellow-eyed penguin is equally dependant on marine and land habitat, which includes forest and scrubland and, sometimes, grazed pasture

A Department of Conservation species conservation plan was established in 1985, in response to the population instability in the South Island during the 1980's.

This plan outlined a number of objectives. Foremost among these was:

  • The immediate, urgent requirement to stabilise hoiho numbers at or above present levels.

A number of these objectives were achieved from 1985-97, the key success being:

'Hoiho numbers in the key habitat area of south-east South Island have stabilised from previous dramatic swings and are now increasing.'

Recovery Plan in action

The Department of Conservation Hoiho Recovery Plan was approved in 2000, and carries on from the species conservation plan before it.

This plan sets in place a series of steps that will promote the recovery of the yellow-eyed penguin. It also outlines different management options, and a work plan. The Long-term vision of the recovery plan is:

'Hoiho populations have increased and the community is actively involved in their conservation.'


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