Whio are the flavour of the month for March. And no, not literally (apparently they taste awful).

Whio are the flavour of the month for March. And no, not literally (apparently they taste awful). March is Whio Awareness Month, and learning about the plight of these ducks is the aim of the month.

Whio are also known as blue duck, although they’re not really blue, they are grey like the rocks found in the rivers that they inhabit. Everything about them is perfectly adapted to living on rivers. They even have rubbery lips that protect their bills from abrasion when they’re hunting for their favorite food- bugs amongst the rocks.

Whio are smaller than the common mallard- but they make up for their small size by having a big attitude. They are feisty- defending a territory on the river with their mate, and fighting off other whio and any other waterfowl. They’ve even been seen taking on Canadian Geese- a bit like a fox terrier taking on a great dane.

However, despite their feistiness, they are no match for stoats. Stoats are enemy number one for whio, and are decimating whio populations. There are only 2500 whio left- the population size of a small New Zealand town.

Stoats are great swimmers, and whio have no defenses against sharp teeth, so blue duck buffet is on the menu for stoats. 

Not happy with watching local whio populations disappear into the stomachs of stoats, staff at the Department of Conservation in Ruapehu started predator trapping next to rivers. Kill-traps were set up alongside rivers that held the biggest remaining populations of whio in Tongariro Forest. Whio ranger Dean Flavell spent all winter in 2007 trudging up and down the rivers putting the traps out on the river, carrying 20 kilograms of traps at a time on his back - cold, and tiring work, but worth it.

Whio ranger Alison Beath is astounded by the success of the project. “On the Mangatepopo Stream we started with 8 pairs of whio, now we’ve got 20 squeezed in there” she says. Without predator control, most nests will get destroyed by stoats or rats. “Before predator control we would only get 25 ducklings in a season. In one season that number quadrupled to 86 ducklings” Beath says.

The trapping, as well as aerial 1080 every five years, has meant that predator numbers have remained low. This season on Tongariro Forest Rivers, however, floods have destroyed nests. Whio have a not so smart habit of often nesting close to the water, and big floods wash away nests. After a ridiculously wet September (which is when the ducks are nesting), only ten ducklings have hatched so far this season, all part of the challenge of working with these quirky waterfowl.
Whio aren’t shy birds, and people seeing whio are often amazed at how nonplussed the birds were at human presence. It’s all part of the persona of being a feisty duck. So the whio will be happy to know that for March, the spotlight is all on them.

Everyone is invited to the Whio Family Day on March 19th, at the Tongariro National Trout Centre in Turangi. The Department of Conservation, along with Genesis Energy, Forest and Bird and the Central North Island Blue Duck Conservation Charitable Trust are hosting this day. There will be lots of activities, including a bouncy castle for the kids. Come along and learn about this native duck of ours. Hope to see you there.

If you want to help the whio in other ways, take note of these points recommended by the Department of Conservation.

  • Keep the waterways and the river environment clean
  • When camping or picnicking remember to take out what you bring in
  • Observe guidelines for keeping the waterways free from didymo
  • Leave your dogs at home when visiting waterways where blue duck populations live, or keep them on a leash
  • Support riparian planting and waterway protection in your area
  • You can make donations to the Central North Island Blue Duck Charitable Trust
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