Mass blue penguin die-off
‘‘By the time a little blue penguin is in the shallow water in the daytime, and you’re able to pick it up – that means it’s critically unwell, so this is not an animal that needs selfies taken, this is an animal that needs urgent veterinary care.’’
James Chatterton, of Auckland Zoo
Large numbers of dead blue penguins have been washed up on northern East Coast beaches this summer, with the total number thought to be in the thousands.
The number of dead birds was unusual but not unprecedented, Department of Conservation penguin expert Graeme Taylor said. It was about a one-in-20-year event, with the last similar year being 1998.
Reports of dead penguins had been coming in from East Coast beaches from Bay of Plenty north since the start of the year.
A clearer idea of the number of dead penguins found would not be known until the Birds New Zealand
Beach Patrol Scheme put out its 2018 report, but the number would have to be in the thousands, Taylor said.
‘‘I’ve heard people saying they’ve picked up 20 or 30 on a single small beach somewhere.’’
The number of deaths was probably a result of a change of weather patterns – during the penguin breeding season, there was an El Nin˜ o pattern, with cold waters creating rich food supplies and successful breeding, Taylor said.
In the late spring, La Nin˜ a took over. The water rapidly warmed, pushing cooler currents to the bottom, and with them the food supply.
Penguin deaths were also more noticeable in years with more easterly winds and currents, which pushed dead birds back on to the beaches. In years with more westerlies, dead birds floated out to sea.
Taylor didn’t know whether any of the birds found dead this summer had undergone autopsies, but in the past autopsies had found the little blue penguins almost always died of starvation.
There were probably 5000-10,000 little blue penguin breeding pairs along the east coast of northern New Zealand, mostly breeding on offshore islands.
Basically there were two chicks in the nest. One was big and healthier and got most of the food, while the other struggled to get enough food. It was usually the smaller of the two that died when they went out to sea.
Auckland Zoo said it had seen more than five times the number of the penguins it would normally treat.
James Chatterton, a senior veterinarian at Auckland Zoo’s veterinary hospital, said the penguins weren’t being helped by people stopping to take selfies with the dying birds.
‘‘By the time a little blue penguin is in the shallow water in the daytime, and you’re able to pick it up – that means it’s critically unwell, so this is not an animal that needs selfies taken, this is an animal that needs urgent veterinary care,’’ Chatterton told the Aotearoa Science Agency.
Rather than pick up a bird that looked as if was in trouble, it was best to call the SPCA, DOC, or a local bird rescue.
Reports of little blue penguins washing up dead on East Coast beaches from Bay of Plenty north have been coming in since the start of the year.