Found only in southern New Zealand, the endangered yellow-eyed penguin, or hoiho, is considered the most ancient of all living penguins but today numbers only around four thousand. It evolved in forests free of predators, but human disturbance, loss of habitat and the introduction of ferrets, stoats and cats have had a devastating effect. The small mainland population of just a few hundred occupies nesting areas dotted along the wild southeast coast of the South Island (from Oamaru to the Catlins), while other smaller colonies inhabit the coastal forest margins of Stewart Island and offshore islets, and New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands of Auckland and Campbell.
Male and female adults are identical in colouring, with pink webbed feet and a bright yellow band that encircles the head, sweeping over their pale yellow eyes. Standing around 65cm high and weighing 5–6kg – making them the third-largest penguin species after the Emperor and the King – they have a life expectancy of up to twenty years. Their diet consists of squid and small fish, and hunting takes them up to 40km offshore and to depths of 100m.
Maori named the bird hoiho, meaning “the noise shouter”, because of the distinctive high-pitched calls (an exuberant trilling) it makes at night when greeting its mate at the nest. Unlike other penguins, the yellow-eyed does not migrate after its first year, but stays near its home beach, making daily fishing trips and returning as daylight fails.
The penguins’ breeding season lasts for 28 weeks, from mid-August to early March. Eggs are laid between mid-September and mid-October, and both parents share incubation duties for about 43 days. The eggs hatch in November and for the next six weeks the chicks are constantly guarded against predators. By the time the down-covered chicks are six or seven weeks old, their rapid growth gives them voracious appetites and both parents must fish daily to satisfy them. The fledglings enter the sea for the first time in late February or early March and journey up to 500km north to winter feeding grounds. Fewer than fifteen percent of fledged chicks reach breeding age, but those that do return to the colony of their birth.