The poor little kororā. The little blue penguin. They are the smallest in the world. They weigh just 1-1.5 kg and are only 35-43cm long. The kororā always look terribly vulnerable bobbing about in the Mahurangi, when we see them from our kayak. Too slow and docile, trusting and defenceless, in a world of jet skis and motor boats at sea, and dogs and ‘development’ on land and also at sea, such as the controversial Pūtiki marina at Waiheke.
Add climate change to habitat loss and predation from introduced animals (pets and pests), depletion of their food stocks and set nets. And in some parts of New Zealand, vehicle strike is their biggest threat. You wonder how they survive. In theory they can live up to 20 years, though the average is around six. But in reality, the species is at risk and in decline.
If you’ve ever camped at Motuora Island you may have been kept awake by kororā, though they’re in competition for noise with the kiwi. They have a raspy squeaky squawk. They spend the night on land, after rafted groups of penguins have congregated offshore. Their burrows are little hollows sometimes made by other birds (or boxes made by people), and also little coastal caves, crevices and under rocks, and sometimes houses. They are faithful to the same nest sites across seasons and lay one or two white or mottled brown eggs which hatch after around 36 days. The chicks stay on the nest for 18 to 38 days and fledge after seven or eight weeks. The parents can also sometimes lay a second or third clutch of eggs.
So kororā are a bit of a contradiction – plucky, with fortitude, hydrodynamic and quite robust – but vulnerable to the many threats that face them. More than 40 dead kororā were recently found at Tokerau Bay. Then more than a hundred were found dumped off a track nearby. What killed so many kororā, and who dumped them there?
Scientists say the penguins were terribly skinny, some weighing only 500gm. They attribute the deaths to low food supplies from climate change, La Niña and the warm seas. They reckon that warmer water makes the penguins’ food species (small shoaling fish, crustaceans and shrimps), swim deeper than the penguins can. So the penguins starve to death or die from hypothermia. More frequent episodes of warm seas and penguin deaths means they don’t have a chance to recover.
Mass die-offs of kororā should be real cause for concern. To mix my bird metaphors, penguin mass-mortality is the canary in the coal mine. There’s too much pressure, too many threats. Kororā reflect the strength and fragility of nature and its inhabitants. Robust for millennia but no match for modern man and his accoutrements, or the damage he does to the planet. How can we be better stewards of kororā and of the earth and ocean, in the anthropocene age?