“It was incredible to be able to slot into this slick, well run machine. Everything ran like clockwork which meant we could all focus our efforts on the care of the chicks,” explains Zoo veterinary nurse Celine Campana.

Recently, a few of our kaimahi ventured to The Wildlife Hospital in Dunedin to help with critical hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) conservation efforts. Unfortunately, this endemic and rare bird species is severely impacted by two serious and frequently deadly diseases in the wild - Diphtheritic stomatitis (DS) and Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), but early intervention has a huge impact on hoiho chick survival.  

Newly hatched chicks or eggs are collected by Department of Conservation rangers and the Wildlife Trusts (The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, The Otago Peninsula Eco Restoration Alliance and Penguin Rescue) from the Catlins up to North Otago and brought to the Wildlife Hospital for care and treatment. This initiative has taken place for the past three years and has seen incredible results so far. Prior to these interventions, in a given breeding season roughly 30% of hoiho chicks naturally survived to fledging, yet with intervention, the chicks that come through Dunedin Wildlife Hospital have an over 90% survival rate!

Auckland Zoo staff supported this project for the first time in 2022, with bird keepers Sarah Quevit-Perinelle and Suzie Keith spending four weeks collectively assisting in this mahi, including veterinary nurse Breeze Buchanan volunteering her own time to work on the project. This year, our support increased with vet Adam Naylor and veterinary nurse Celine Campana also lending their skills to the programme. 

Caring for so many hungry mouths at once requires a diligent group of skilled volunteers to assist The Wildlife Hospital staff – this ranges from experts familiar with penguin rearing to those with general bird husbandry skills. This season, a staggering 178 chicks were admitted to the hospital, with six eggs also hatched on site; up to 72 chicks were cared for at one time!

To track the progress of every chick, each was given a unique coloured flipper band so that they could be individually identified. Their daily weight change, food intake and medications could then be carefully monitored. This amazing attention to detail helped with systematically feeding so many hungry mouths. “While feeding them we rest our fingers at the sides of the chicks’ beaks, this replicates the position of the parents’ beaks during feeding, stimulating the chicks to beg. It ensures this natural behaviour continues when the chick is returned to their nest,” explains Adam.

In the morning, each chick was weighed, and their daily feed requirement calculated. Chicks were fed a delicious fish slurry that is roughly 10% of their body weight at every feed. Once they were a few days old they then moved to larger creche tubs, before finally being returned to the wild and placed back on the nest to be cared for by their parents.

“During our two weeks at the hospital, we got to see some of the chicks ‘graduate’ from incubators, to tubs, and ultimately returned to the wild, and it was very rewarding to see them growing and developing well”, explains Celine.

Lending our skills to conserving a species like hoiho is not only important for this individual species, but it also provides a two-way learning opportunity, with Zoo staff able to reinforce their penguin rearing skills on a massive scale. This will help with future efforts to create a self-sustaining population of kororā (little penguin) at the Zoo – the most recent of which was Tamāroa who hatched in late 2022.

This northern sub-population of hoiho is endangered, with roughly 250 adults surviving today - so each chick that successfully reaches adulthood is a huge benefit for the health of the overall species.


Protecting precious hoiho from a deadly disease

You can read more about hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) and efforts to conserve them.

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