The yellow-eyed penguin is the world's rarest penguin, with a population estimated at between 6000-7000. However the critical figure is the number of breeding pairs of hoiho, estimated at only 630 pairs. The hoiho gets its name from the distinctive yellow eye and head markings. The rest of its plumage is blue-grey, with a white belly.
It is found only in New Zealand. They are found mostly on the southeast coast of the South Island, Stewart Island and on the subantarctic Campbell and Auckland Islands. Their numbers on the mainland have declined because of predators and the loss of their habitat, and are now only approximately one fifth of the total population.
Hoiho are New Zealand's largest penguins, growing to a height of up to 75 cm. They are also long-lived, sometimes living for 20 years. Hoiho feed on a diet of fish, such as sprat, red cod and squid. They go to sea during the daylight hours and spend their time feeding 5-15 kilometres from the shore. Young hoiho chicks are covered in thick brown down and then feathers until their adult plumage comes in when they are about 14 months old.
While they are dependent on both their marine and their land habitat, it is their living space on land which is under the greatest threat. The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust was set up in 1987 to help increase hoiho numbers by restoring coastal forest, and removing predators. Hoiho need forest and scrubland to provide safe nesting places and are solitary birds, unlike other penguins which prefer to live in colonies, building their nests away from other hoiho. Loss of this habitat appears to have had an impact on the breeding success of the hoiho. Where there used to be tall forest, now there is pasture, with flax and shrubland only in deep gullies. Hoiho will nest there but prefer the forest.
Hoiho can often be seen coming ashore after a day of deep water fishing and returning to their nesting burrows in the coastal scrub. Because of this regular habit, accurate counts can be made of their numbers. Efforts at protecting their habitat have included putting up fences to keep out cattle and sheep from their nesting areas, and replanting these areas with the vegetation hoiho prefer to nest in. In some places nesting boxes have been built for the hoiho.
Predators of hoiho chicks include dogs, stoats, ferrets, and cats. Land that has been cleared for pasture provides the ideal living space for rabbits, and feral cats and ferrets can survive only where there is a good supply of rabbits. These predators will change their diet to penguin chick if they are also available. While trapping can remove some ferrets and stoats, the hoiho still are vulnerable to attack by domestic pets.
- Yellow-Eyed Penguin resources in our catalogue
- New Zealand Penguin resources in our catalogue
- The penguin by Barbara Todd
- Yellow-Eyed Penguin from Department of Conservation
- Little and yellow-eyed penguins Te Ara
- Yellow-eyed penguin New Zealand birds online
- Our full list of New Zealand Birds and Animals