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New Zealand family gives big boost to tiny penguins

The Washington Post The Washington Post 29/02/2016 Associated Press
Shireen Helps tosses Blindy, a sightless little blue penguin, into the middle of a pond to keep it from crashing into the side as it swims. © Nick Perry/Associated Press Shireen Helps tosses Blindy, a sightless little blue penguin, into the middle of a pond to keep it from crashing into the side as it swims.

Blindy the little blue penguin was born sightless and developed the unusual habit of swimming in tight circles.

So, to prevent the bird from continually crashing into the side of the small pond where it swims, Shireen Helps began tossing it out into deeper water. Penguins are flightless, but Blindy, for a few moments anyway, gets to be airborne.

Blindy lives in New Zealand’s Flea Bay, home to three humans and more than 2,500 penguins. Efforts by the Helps family over more than three decades have helped save the bay’s penguins from predators while many nearby colonies were wiped out.

These days, the colony is thriving, a hopeful sign at a time when many penguin species from Antarctica to the Galapagos Islands, which are off the coast of Ecuador, are facing threats from humans that come from overfishing and global warming.

Shireen and her husband, Francis, never intended to become penguin caretakers. Francis moved to Flea Bay, also known as Pohatu, in 1969, with the intention of farming sheep and cattle. He said it wasn’t until the first night, when he was kept awake by noises that sounded like the braying of donkeys, that he realized he was surrounded by penguins.

Blindy, who lives in Flea Bay, New Zealand, is about 12 weeks old. The little blue penguin can’t see. © Nick Perry/Associated Press Blindy, who lives in Flea Bay, New Zealand, is about 12 weeks old. The little blue penguin can’t see.

“They’re very noisy at night, especially pre-breeding,” Shireen said. “They get really wound up. They party all night.”

After meeting Francis, Shireen moved to the bay in 1974 and noticed that other penguin colonies in the area were disappearing, she said.

“And that’s when we started to look critically around our own back yard,” she said. “We found dead penguins everywhere. We realized that predators were hitting into them, and if somebody didn’t do something to save this colony, it would be lost.”

So they began trapping feral cats, ferrets and stoats, which are like weasels. They also built tiny wooden huts to stop the penguins from fighting one another for nesting sites. Finally, they started nursing the ill birds, managing to save some and return them to the wild.

Found in parts of Australia and New Zealand, the penguins are called little penguins, little blue penguins or fairy penguins. Adults stand just 13 inches tall and weigh a little more than two pounds, making them the world’s smallest penguin species.

Those living around Banks Peninsula, which includes Flea Bay, are known as white-flippered because of the distinctive white stripes along the leading edge of their flippers.

Blindy, who is about 12 weeks old, was from a nearby colony and was found alone in a creek by a local farmer.

Shireen Helps hand-feeds one of the 2,500 penguins that lives near her home. She and her husband have been helping more than three decades to save the penguins from predators. © Nick Perry/Associated Press Shireen Helps hand-feeds one of the 2,500 penguins that lives near her home. She and her husband have been helping more than three decades to save the penguins from predators.

Helps said Blindy was born with a malformed head and beak, making it hard to tell if it’s a male or female. She said at first its circling antics seemed to trouble the bird.

“If it gets dizzy going around one way, it changes direction and goes around the other way,” she said. “So it’s really learning very well.”

She said the penguin is too disabled to be returned to the wild, but she hopes that a zoo might take it.

Animal ecologist Chris Challies, who has long monitored white-flippered little penguins, said the population on Banks Peninsula plunged by as much as 80 percent from 1980 to 2000 as the penguins were attacked by predators such as ferrets. He said the trapping program introduced by the Helps family “probably saved the colony through the 1990s.”

The penguins were also given a boost after local authorities banned fishermen from using nets, which accidentally caught the penguins, and later declared the area around Flea Bay a marine reserve.

The little blue penguins “are doing very well at the moment, but we can’t count on it,” Challies said. “These things can fluctuate. It’s the marine environment we can’t control.”

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