There isn’t much known about Penguin Awareness Day, and while it would be fun and cute to share GIFs and videos of well-known penguin species like the Emperor or the Fairy, I wanted to use this day bring attention to a lesser-known species of our favorite flightless birds, the Yellow-Eyed Penguin.
Native to New Zealand, they are the rarest of all penguin species with a population of about 2,000. They are the fourth largest penguin, measuring between 24-31 inches in length and weighing about 15 lbs. Yellow-Eyed Penguins are so named because of their pale yellow head and irises. They have a distinctive band of bright yellow running from their eyes around the back of the head. Males are typically larger than females and many live to be 20 years old. Their closest penguin cousins are the Crested Penguins, like the Rockhoppers, or Macaroni penguins. Yellow-Eyed Penguins are some of the most devoted penguin parents. They have a long breeding season and the incubation of eggs and raising of the young is a shared responsibility; many pairs even raising two chicks.
What makes these penguins unique from most other species is that they are least social of all penguins. Their Maori name, “hoiho” means noise shouter. It was given to them due to their distinct call. Since they live far apart from each other, this call helps them to communicate. They are very shy creatures who live in secluded nests along the shores of New Zealand’s coastal forests. They will run and hide in the shrubs, making it hard for even scientists to spot them in the wild.
In addition to being the rarest, Yellow-Eyed Penguins are also often called the most ancient of the penguin species. Fossils have been found in New Zealand proving the existence of penguins more than 60 million years ago. The Yellow-Eyed Penguin had a larger sister species that was likely hunted to extinction in the 16th century, allowing our small Yellow-Eyed friends to thrive along New Zealand’s coast. They are direct descendants of penguins who waddled with the dinosaurs!
Sadly, our Yellow-Eyed friends are at risk of extinction. “Despite conservation efforts, their population numbers continue to drop from approximately 6,000 a decade ago to only 2,000 today. Their outlook looks even bleaker, with only 18 out of 100 penguin chicks making it past year one.” Predators, climate change, human disturbance, fires, drowning in fishing nets, disease and food shortages all contribute to their struggling existence. The Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust is hoping to change that outlook. Since 1987, the Trust has been working hard to protect the Yellow-Eyed penguin population and habitat. They’ve built fencing to protect their nests, planted trees and shrubs and purchased pieces of land for penguin reserves. You can join the Penguin Coffee Club to help the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust.