Endangered penguin wins New Zealand’s Bird of the Year

The yellow-eyed penguin was voted as the winner for New Zealand’s Bird of the Year competition.

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Following fierce competition from 5 rival bird species, the yellow-eyed penguin, also known as the hoiho, has won Bird of the Year in New Zealand.

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The Bird of the Year is an annual competition run by Forest and Bird, an independent, New Zealand conservation organisation aiming to protect both terrestrial and marine wildlife, and wild places.

The competition aims to raise awareness of some of the two-thirds of New Zealand’s native birds that are threatened with extinction.

“The level of interest in the contest continues to grow every year, it’s really caught the imagination of New Zealanders, thanks in large part to the inventiveness, humour, passion of campaign managers for the birds,” says David Brook from Bird of the Year.

“It has also been interesting to see the level of overseas interest rising, from Britain, the US and Australia in particular. They seem to have responded to passion shown by New Zealanders for our birds.”

After strong campaigning attracting nationwide interest and support from 2 mayors, the yellow-eyed penguin became the first penguin species to win the competition.

“For the first time in the 14 year history of the competition, voters could rank up to five of their favourite birds under the single transferable vote (STV) system, rather than just one,” adds Brooks. “Despite the fact there were more than 80 native birds to choose from, the hoiho and the kākāpō, the critically endangered flightless parrot, were neck and neck in voting, with the hoiho pulling ahead only in the final days.”

Explaining why the hoiho was so successful, Brooks added, “One important reason is everyone loves penguins, their upright walk seems very human. The way they waddle up a beach or over rocks is very endearing and reminds us of the way small children walk.”

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As the name suggests, the yellow-eyed penguin has distinctive yellow eyes and a band of yellow head feathers. © David Hallett

Winning a total 12,022 of the 43,460 verified votes, the hoiho was followed by the kākāpō (2008 winner), black robin, banded dotterel, and the fantail (2006 winner).

Unlike the traditional image of huddling penguins seen in most nature documentaries, the hoiho is typically antisocial and nests out of sight of other penguins. Their Maori name, ‘hoiho’, translates as ‘noise shouter’ and refers to the high-pitched call made by the birds to locate mates and chicks.

“The hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, is the largest penguin breeding on New Zealand’s mainland and is distinctive for the yellow band of feathers around the head as well as yellow eyes,” says Brooks.

It is one of three penguin species that breeds on New Zealand’s mainland and another three breed on New Zealand subantarctic islands. The species is found nowhere else in the world and is one of the most threatened penguins globally and the population on New Zealand’s mainland and nearby offshore islands has fallen to around 225 breeding pairs.

Threats include habitat loss, disease and the impact of predators such as stoats, cats and dogs onshore. Fishing nets, disruption to feeding areas and the impact of climate change on food sources are all having a serious impact on the penguins offshore.

If their population continues to decline, hoiho may become less resilient to these threats in the future. Explaining the significance of the hoiho’s win for conservation, Brooks says,

“Throughout the two week voting period, the humour was accompanied by serious messages about the dire state of the hoiho population. This combination of messaging worked well. The humour captured people’s attention and then they were receptive to learning more about hoiho and the threats they face. It was also noticeable that once the hoiho was named as winner, there were a lot of media stories about the hoiho and efforts to protect them.”


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Main image: yellow-eyed penguin. © Craig McKenzi