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Fiordland Crested Penguin

While you’re out hunting for the rumoured wild moose or trying to spot a Moa, keep your eyes peeled for Fiordland’s cutest residents; the tawaki.

The tawaki, or Fiordland Crested Penguin, is endemic to the rainforests of Fiordland and is the second rarest breed of penguins in the world. Known for their gleaming yellow crests that stick out like bushy eyebrows and their bright orange beaks, these little birds are as commonly found amongst the ferns as they are in the sea.

The temperatures in Fiordland makes it a perfect habitat for these penguins. However, with the introduction of predator species such as dogs, cats and stoats, this little penguin is extremely vulnerable to extinction.

Legend Has It

In Maori mythology, the natives of Fiordland named the crested penguins for the god, Tawaki. It was believed that Tawaki lived as a mortal being among the humans. People only realized that Tawaki was a god when he discarded his ordinary clothes and decked himself with lightning.

Comparably, the gleaming crests of the Fiordland penguins embodied the lightning clothing of the god and were so named Tawaki.

Identifying features of tawaki

  1. An adult Tawaki has black upper parts which turn brown when approaching the molt, while the underparts are silky white.
  2. The distinguishing yellow eyebrow lines start from the edge of the beak, extend past the eyes, then down to the neck, while the eyes of the Tawakis are brownish-red, and the legs and feet are pinkish-white.
  3. Female Fiordland penguins have smaller orange beaks measuring <24mm while males have >24mm orange beaks, with the thin black strip at the base.
  4. Fiordland National Park is the vast coastline in the southwest of New Zealand that inhabits and breeds the Tawakis.
  5. The Fiordland penguins feed on fish, squids and other molluscs, crabs, crayfish, shrimps and other crustaceans.

Breeding and Population

The breeding season for the Tawakis starts from July to August, resulting in 2 eggs laid 3-6 days apart. The first egg comes smaller than the second egg. After the second egg is laid, the incubation begins which last for 5-10 days. Guarding the eggs is alternated between the male and female penguins equally. After the incubation shift, the female tawaki leaves first for the 10-14 days foraging period. The males leave six weeks after, which is in time for the first egg to hatch sometime in September.

Historical population records of Tawakis shows considerable decline in the number of these penguins in both range and in the number born.

Behaviour and Ecology

After the breeding season, the adult penguins leave to fatten up for about 60-80 days in preparation for the annual moult. They return to their respective colonies sometime in early January until late February. Non-breeders and juveniles commonly lose their plumage earlier. Moulting takes about three weeks, which consumes half of their body weight, after then they grow new feathers.

Threats and predators

While in earlier times tawakis were hunted for food, the biggest threat they face now are introduced predators such as dogs and cats.

The industrialization of fisheries in modern times has mainly endangered the Tawakis as they are left without food close to shore and are forced to swim further from shore to feed.

Marine pollution and change of oceans temperature to a higher degree have also caused a substantial amount of change to the life productivity of the Fiordland penguins.

Raising Awareness

Tawakis are cute and friendly, so it may be tempting to approach these lovely birds. However, they are extremely susceptible to human disturbance, especially when nesting. It is advised not to disturb the nesting birds. Pay particular attention when walking your dog.

If you would like to help protect our penguins from extinction, you can donate to various protection groups, such as the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and Forest & Bird.