Blue duck/whio conservation
Did you know?
Whio use the river as a defence mechanism to evade threats – they go with the flow, submerse themselves, then retreat into roosts.
A unique taonga
Blue duck/whio are a taonga (treasured) species that Māori have a strong cultural, spiritual, and historic connection with.
Their Māori name is whio in the North Island or ko whio whio in the South Island, which depicts the call of the male bird. They are forever watchful – they will always see you before you see them, and the male will sound the alarm call.
Whio are believed to be an ancient species of waterfowl, that appeared at a very early stage in evolutionary history. Their isolation in New Zealand has resulted in unique anatomical and behavioural features.
The whio is an iconic back-country species, and it features on the New Zealand $10 note.
The blue duck is a river specialist, and one of the few waterfowl worldwide that live year round on fast-flowing rivers.
They are a key indicator of healthy rivers and streams. They require clean, fast flowing streams in the forested upper catchments of rivers that provide high water quality, low sediment loadings, stable banks, over head canopy cover, and lots of varied invertebrate communities. The more breeding pairs of blue duck the healthier the river.
Fight for survival
Whio/blue duck are found nowhere else in the world and are rarer than some species of kiwi.
They were once widespread throughout New Zealand. Today they are limited to the less modified catchments of the Urewera, East Cape and central areas of the North Island; and along the West Coast of the South Island from Nelson to Fiordland.
Populations are patchy and isolated. They have low reproductive success, and there are more males than females.
Our five yearly census in 2021 counted 863 pairs. This was an increase of 305 pairs since the 2016 census and 565 more pairs since 2011. Surveys in 2020 found 748 pairs.
There are 491 pairs in the North Island, and 372 in the South Island.
The 2021 census found more than 236 ducklings were born over that year. On average 455 ducklings have been produced annually since 2011.
There were 141 fledglings counted in 2021. On average 313 fledglings have been produced each year since 2011.
In 2021, 35 fledglings were released from our Breeding for Release programme, nine in the North Island and 26 in the South. That brings the number released so far to over 500.
Whio have adapted to a harsh environment that is prone to flooding. They nest along the riverbank in shallow, twig, grass and down-lined scrapes in caves; under river-side vegetation; or in log-jams, dry punga fronds and toi toi. Floods can destroy nests, change the shape of the river, separate families, wash away food sources, and force whio into side streams where they lose the water as their first defence. All this can have an extreme impact on breeding success, and a significant impact on whio populations.
Recreational activities such as whitewater rafting, kayaking, hunting and fishing disturbs whio families during breeding season.
Their habitat has been reduced by the clearance of vegetation from stream and river banks, water diversions, poor water quality and damming for hydro-electric and irrigation schemes
Even where high quality river habitat remains, predation by introduced mammals is causing a significant decline of the species.
Stoats are the greatest danger. Whio nest in the same areas where stoats commonly feed. Stoats can easily follow the scent trail of the female to her hiding place, or sniff out the nest through scent carried on the breeze blowing up and down the river. They attack females on the nest, steal eggs and take young ducklings from the river’s edge.
Feral cats, domestic dogs and ferrets are also known predators. Rats and possums have been recorded at nests and are likely to take eggs.
During the late summer moult period whio are flightless, making them even more vulnerable to attack.
Unlike some endangered bird species, whio cannot simply be transferred to off-shore islands because they rely on large areas of quality, fast flowing riverine habitat that is unavailable on islands.
Unless the causes of decline are remedied (or reduced), the species faces a very real risk of becoming extinct.
The continued survival of this species is therefore largely dependent on the protection of secure source populations throughout mainland New Zealand.
Whio are scattered along the river in 1–5 km territories. They need a scale of management like no other species to ensure their survival. This can be extremely challenging and requires significant resources to manage their threats.
In Te Urewera we found 90% of nests failed in an area without predator control. Of the females, 46% were killed during the moult period when they retreated up small side stream to avoid disturbance.
In the Ruahines and in Taranaki, over 60% of the fledged juveniles died in areas outside of management. From a sample of 154 whio deaths recorded between 1989-2008, 89 were linked to predators (58%), 24 natural deaths, 22 human causes, and 19 were unknown. Stoats were the cause of 79 of the 89 predator deaths.
Tiakina Ngā Manu (formerly Battle for our Birds) is DOC's successful national pest control programme that protects whio and other native species from predators.
Other whio conservation projects and the recovery plan also protect this rare species.
Genesis is partnering with DOC to extend its support for the Whio Forever Recovery Programme.
Genesis is providing resources and their technical experts to support the work at a national level.
- Whio may seem tame and unafraid, but to keep them safe you should give them space and watch them from a distance.
- Keep the waterways and the river environment clean.
- When visiting, to take out what you bring in, and leave your dogs at home or keep them on a leash.
- Observe guidelines for keeping the waterways free from didymo.
- Support riparian planting and waterway protection in your area.
Assist us with the recovery of blue duck/whio by reporting all sightings. You can get sighting cards from DOC offices or send a report to the nearest DOC office.
Provide essential information: date, location, number seen.
If possible, information about whether they are a pair, their sex (males whistle and females growl), age (juvenile or adult, size of juveniles), or what they were doing would also be useful.
Help protect our native birds
Call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) immediately if you see anyone catching, harming or killing native wildlife.
Visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
- Check for pests when visiting pest-free islands.
- Leave nesting birds alone.
- Use available access ways to get to the beach.
- Avoid leaving old fishing lines on beaches or in the sea.
- Follow the water care code and local navigation bylaws.
- Do not drive on riverbeds, or keep to formed tracks if you have to.
With your dog
- Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep them under control.
- If you come across wildlife put your dog on a lead and lead it away.
- Warn other dog owners at the location.
- Notify DOC if you see wildlife being harassed by people or dogs.
Other ways to help
- Get your dog trained in avian awareness.
- Volunteer to control predators and restore bird habitats.
- Set predator traps on your property.
- Keep your cat in at night.
- Learn about the Lead the Way programme which encourages dog owners to become wildlife wise and know how to act to protect coastal wildlife.