The Yellow-eyed Penguin is only found in New Zealand and is one of the rarest of the penguins. They live and breed around the south-east coast of the South island, on Stewart island and in the sub-antarctic Auckland and Campbell islands. They are known to New Zealand’s native Peoples the Maori, as “Hoiho” meaning “the noisy penguin”. The word Penguin first appears in the 16th century as a synonym for the now extinct Great Auk. When European explorers discovered what are today known as Penguins in the Southern Hemisphere, they noticed their similar appearance to the Great Auk of the Northern Hemisphere and named them after this bird, although they are not closely related. Standing 65 centimeters tall and weighing 5-6 kilograms, the Yellow-eyed is the fourth largest of the world’s penguins. The distinguishing feature of the Yellow-eyed Penguin is its distinctive yellow eye and bright yellow stripe that runs through the eye and around the back of the head. Both sexes are alike, although the male does have slightly larger head and feet. Juvenile Yellow-eyed’s look very similar to the adults, but lack the yellow head band. They gain their adult plumage at one year of age. Yellow-eyed Penguins are forest or shrub land nesting birds, usually preferring to nest in a secluded site and backed up to a bank, tree or log. Although they nest in loose “colonies”, Yellow-eyed Penguins do not nest within sight of each other. Nest sites are selected in August and normally 2 eggs are laid in September. The incubation duties (lasting 39-51 days) are shared by both parents who may spend several days on the nest at a time. For the first six weeks after hatching, the chicks are guarded during the day by one parent while the other is at sea feeding.
The foraging adult Yellow-eyed Penguin returns at least daily to feed the chicks and relieve the partner. After the chicks are six weeks of age, both parents go to sea to supply food to their rapidly growing offspring. Chicks usually fledge in mid February and are totally independent from then on. Chick fledge weights are generally between 5-6 kilograms. First breeding occurs at 3-4 years of age and long-term partnerships are formed. Yellow-eyed Penguins may live for up to 24 years. Yellow-eyed Penguins feed on a variety of fish with squid also important in their diet. Feeding is usually done near the bottom at depths of up to 160 meters and as far as 50 kilometers off shore. Dive times are up to 3.5 minutes. The loss of coastal forest has played a part in the decline of the Yellow-eyed Penguin but the biggest threat to the survival of the species is introduced mammalian predators. Wild cats and ferrets often kill chicks and take eggs. Adults all too often fall victim to dogs. Variations in the productivity of the marine environment can seriously affect breeding success and adult survival in some “poor” years. Set nets are also a threat, but little information is available about the extent of the problem. The population of Yellow-eyed Penguins is estimated to be around 2,000 breeding pairs and is centered on the sub-antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands, however around 500 pairs breed on New Zealand’s South Island and another 150 pairs on and around Stewart Island. Variable marine productivity causes considerable fluctuation in year-to-year numbers of breeding pairs, however the long-term trend is stable. The species are listed by the NZ Dept of Conservation as being “threatened”. There are no Yellow-eyed Penguins in captivity however there are numerous sites between Oamaru and Campbell Island where Yellow-eyed Penguins may be seen in the wild.