White-flippered penguins (Eudyptula albosignata), also known as korora, are endemic to the Canterbury region of New Zealand, where the birds have just two major breeding sites, remote Motunau Island and the volcanic headlands of the Banks Peninsula. The latter is where Francis Helps and his wife Shireen have converted much of their farmland into a safe haven for the rare birds.
Helps tells New Zealand's ONE News that he grew up surrounded by the small blue-white birds, which are known for their loud, football-like victory dances. "As a kid I can remember...all you could hear at night was penguins."
But even then the penguins were on the decline. Invasive cats, ferrets and stoats (a type of weasel) had overrun the country, endangering many native birds. Like the flightless kiwi, the 30-centimeter korora became easy prey. The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) estimates that up to 80 percent of the penguins throughout the Canterbury area (largest city Christchurch) were killed over a period of 50 years. (Tiny, rocky Motunau Island is predator-free, so the small colony there has maintained its numbers.)
Twenty years ago Helps and the DOC teamed up to support the penguins, installing traps to catch and kill the predators and nesting boxes to protect the penguins' nests. The Christchurch City Council and the regional government agency Environment Canterbury have helped to a lesser extent, although funds from all three organizations have been extremely limited. The Helps also offer penguin tours and kayak trips to help fund conservation.
The efforts have all made a dramatic difference. A survey at the end of last year found 1,304 breeding pairs at Flea Bay, along with hundreds of juveniles and single adults. DOC says the population has grown by 25 percent since the last survey four years ago. In addition, a few other bird species have returned to the region, including yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes), which now have three nests in the bay. "It's just a really little slice of penguin paradise," DOC ranger Anita Spencer told The Press.
Until 2006 white-flippered penguins were considered a color morph (basically an unusual specimen) or possibly a subspecies of the more populous little penguin (E. minor). DNA tests published that year in Proceedings of the Royal Society B revealed them to be a species in their own right, although some sources still list them as a subspecies. The birds were listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2010, which limits their import into this country. New Zealand's DOC is currently trying to establish additional breeding colonies elsewhere in the country in hopes of protecting the penguins against disease or other cataclysmic events, but it may not be easy. Previous research has shown that white-flippered penguins are extremely loyal to their nests and colonies and almost never move to new sites of their own volition.
Francis Helps discusses his efforts to protect the penguins in this 2010 video from the DOC and TVNZ 6:
Photo: A tagged white-flippered penguin in Christchurch by Heather F, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license