Smelly work reaps re­ward for bird-dog


All seabirds smell but pen­guins reek, ac­cord­ing to the woman whose job is track­ing them down.

Joanna Sims and her bird­hunt­ing dog Rua have just dis­cov­ered what could be Welling­ton’s largest colony of lit­tle blue pen­guins liv­ing undis­cov­ered on the east coast of Mana Is­land.

‘‘In 20 years of work, I’ve never come across that con­cen­tra­tion of pen­guins.

‘‘In the first 1.5km, we found at least 50 of them liv­ing un­der drift­wood. You would never have known they were there.’’

The birds, the world’s small­est pen­guins, are the most com­mon pen­guin species found around New Zealand.

Sims and Rua make a liv­ing out of find­ing seabirds. Their work takes them from is­land to is­land, dis­cov­er­ing birds hid­ing un­der­ground.

‘‘A lot of peo­ple don’t re­alise these birds bur­row un­der­ground. They don’t nest in trees or on the sur­face.

‘‘The dogs sniff them out. Pen­guins smell of am­mo­nia – it will make your eyes wa­ter – but other seabirds smell sort of musty. It’s re­ally not un­pleas­ant.’’

The pair were on the is­land scout­ing for bur­rows as part of the on­go­ing work to re­pop­u­late the is­land with na­tive birds.

Rua is one of the few seabird dogs in the coun­try and is also trained to find kiwi, Sims said.

The 4-year-old bor­der col­lielabrador cross was trained with lots of en­cour­age­ment and a feather-filled sock.

‘‘He’s trained to sniff the birds out, then stand still and look at them, but never touch them.

‘‘No­body has writ­ten the guide to train­ing seabird dogs, so I just fig­ured it out as I went along.’’

Seabirds bur­row into the ground us­ing their feet and claws. They then lay eggs and raise their young, re­turn­ing year af­ter year to the same bur­row.

‘‘They will re­turn and re­unite with thier mate – they’re monog- amous – clean any mess out of their bur­row and use it again.’’

The ba­bies then re­turn and make new bur­rows near the ones where they were raised.

Friends of Mana Is­land pres­i­dent Brian Bell said he was de­lighted with the dis­cov­ery of the pen­guin colony.

‘‘Ac­cord­ing to [the De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion’s] Graeme Tay­lor, this could turn out to be the largest colony of lit­tle blue pen­guins in the Welling­ton re­gion.’’

A lit­tle blue pen­guin re­leased by Welling­ton Zoo.

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