Posts Tagged ‘northern rockhopper penguins’

Penguin Sweaters: To Knit or Not To Knit?

April 28, 2014

With World Penguin Day in the rear view mirror, conservation organizations are working 24 / 7 to raise awareness of the threats facing the world’s 17 species of penguin. We’re doing our part at Penguin Place by helping you understand the cutest penguin activism controversy ever, which has consumed — one might even say snuggled — the Internet more than a few times in recent years.  Whether or not it is a good idea to knit a sweater for a penguin in distress.

1. Wait, what? Why do penguins need sweaters? I thought they were threatened by the earth getting too hot!

Penguins face a lot of threats. Global warming is definitely one — according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 12 of the 17 species of penguins are threatened by climate change. But some penguin species are also threatened by pollution, particularly oil spills. When penguins come into contact with oil in the wake of a spill, conservationists put them in sweaters so they don’t try to eat the oil off their feathers before they can be washed off. After they’re washed, the sweaters help keep the penguins warm, and waterproof, until their feathers and natural oils can recover.


2. What type of penguins are we talking about here?

The most famous “sweaters for penguins” campaigns have been for the species of penguins called Little Blue penguins, who live in Australia and New Zealand, and the endangered African penguins who live along the coasts of South Africa.  Here’s what a Little Blue penguin looks like when not covered in oil:


Here’s what they look like when they are:


3. Real talk: does putting penguins in sweaters actually work?

The Penguin Foundation, which exists solely to protect Australia’s little penguin population, certainly thinks it does. They work with the  Tasmanian Conservation Trust on the “Knits for Nature” program, which has actually existed for over a decade. The first public sweaters-for-penguins campaign, after an oil spill in Tasmania in 2002, produced 15,000 sweaters. Some were used immediately, and the rest were put in emergency kits around Tasmania.


4. Isn’t it uncomfortable for the penguin?

Some bird researchers think it is. The organization International Bird Rescue points out that penguins overheat easily, so putting an oil-smothered penguin in a layer of thick wool might not be the best idea. Additionally, traumatized wild penguins might not like the added stress of a human being putting something over their heads and onto their bodies. And if the sweater prevents some of the oil from evaporating off the penguin, it could exacerbate the damage of the spill.

5. Do conservationists still use penguin sweaters?

Yes, but they already have plenty. Between the original stockpile of sweaters, a 2011 campaign (run by a knitting site) that went viral, and the sweaters charities get from random people who hear about penguins needing sweaters, the Knits for Nature campaign has plenty in reserve. You’re welcome to knit a sweater for a penguin if you really want — the pattern is available here.  But if it’s made of the wrong kind of wool, is the wrong size, or is just one sweater too many, the Penguin Foundation will put it on a stuffed penguin to sell as a way to raise awareness about little penguin conservation. That’s what happens to most of the sweaters they receive.


Generally, charities tend to prefer that you donate money rather than goods. The original penguin campaign was an exception, because of the urgent need (and because they couldn’t order them from a factory). But this is a good lesson that the donation you want to make might not be the donation the charity needs.

6. How threatened are little penguins, anyway?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which runs the official Red List of Threatened Species, has the threat level for Little penguins set to its lowest level: Least Concern. This makes them much less threatened than a lot of other penguin species: 15 of 17 species of penguins are at a higher threat level, and 5 of them are officially “endangered,” according to the IUCN.

7. What kind of penguins should I be worried about?

The IUCN lists the African, erect-crested, Galapagos, Northern Rockhopper, and Yellow-eyed penguins as “endangered.” They range in population size from 265,000 Northern Rockhopper breeding pairs to only 1,700 breeding pairs of yellow-eyed penguins.


8. Do those penguins need sweaters?

It’s debatable, but pollution isn’t the biggest threat facing these species. Most of them are immediately threatened by humans encroaching on and degrading their habitats, and need stronger protections for their foraging and breeding grounds.

The Penguins of Tristan da Cunha One Year Later

February 8, 2012

It’s been almost a year since thousands of endangered penguins’ lives were threatened by an oil spill on Tristan da Cunha, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic. A survey to assess the birds’ population has now taken place.  When the bulk carrier, MS Oliva, ran aground on 16 March last year, a huge effort to rescue the penguins was launched.  The ship was traveling from Brazil to Singapore with a cargo of 65,000 tons of soya beans and 1,500 tons of bunker fuel when it ran aground.  As the ship broke up in the rough seas, the soya and oil were discharged into the waters around Nightingale Island, part of Tristan da Cunha.  In the days that followed, the oil reached Inaccessible Island, a World Heritage Site, and Tristan more than 30km away.With the group of islands being home to over 65 per cent of the global population of endangered Northern Rockhopper Penguins, residents of Tristan da Cunha, known as Tristanians and the Tristan Conservation Department, followed by staff from the RSPB and Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), came together and moved quickly to collect and clean up the oiled birds and prevent many more from coming into contact with the oil.  Although efforts to rescue and rehabilitate the penguins were huge, it has been unknown until now just how much the rockhopper population has been affected by the spill.  The Penguin Post is happy to report that results from the latest counts suggest the breeding population hasn’t suffered as much as anticipated, but scientists are warning that the news should be met with caution. Dr Juliet Vickery, the RSPB’s Head of International Research, said:  “It’s a big relief that the initial results of the counts are better than we had anticipated. We should not, however, relax our watch. There is much we don’t know about this species and the extent to which breeding colony counts reveal the true picture of population trends is hard to ascertain. Though the immediate impact is not as bad as we feared, there may be longer term sub-lethal effects reducing breeding success, so it is vital that we continue to monitor the birds closely for several more years to establish the true impact of the oil spill.” Estimations show approximately 154,000 rockhoppers bred on the island in 2011 but estimates in the 1950s suggest there were ‘millions’ of birds, with two million pairs on Gough alone. The species remains globally threatened and the causes of the historic decline remain unknown. As well as the long-term effects on the penguins, the oil spill has caused concern for the important Rock Lobster fishery. The fishery, which is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified as a sustainable and well-managed fishery, is a

The usual numbers of breeding Northern Rockhopper Penguins were present on Inaccessible Island last September

mainstay of the island’s economy. The latest evidence shows that catches are way below normal and rotting soya has been spotted on the traps.  A dive survey showed that the wreck had broken up considerably over the winter months.  On the advice of experts the Nightingale fishery has closed and the quota for the fishery at Inaccessible Island was reduced from 92 to 53 tons for the 2011/12 season. After the disaster, the RSPB launched an emergency appeal to raise funds to help with the clean up.  The appeal has raised almost £70,000 and will be used to support penguin monitoring, strengthen the island’s bio-security, and facilitate rodent control on Tristan to reduce risk of rats being introduced to Nightingale. Katrine Herian works for the RSPB on the island, was involved in the clean-up mission last year, and helped carry out the counts. She said: “Something really needs to be said about the huge Tristanian efforts in response to this disaster – without them, this could have been a very different story.  While the true impact of the spill won’t be known for some time yet, we can at least know that everything that could be done was done.”

Rare Penguins Rescued Down Under

January 11, 2012

The Penguin Post has learned that a pair of Northern Rockhopper penguins have been discovered far from their usual habitat on the beaches near the town of Denmark in South Western Australia. They are believed to be one-year-old Northern Rockhoppers which are normally found on Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean, about 3000 miles from Australia. Denmark vet David Edmond has taken in the two, which have come ashore to moult, for safety. “When they come onshore for a moult they usually lose all of their feathers and they can’t swim because they’re no longer waterproof and they grow a new lot of feathers and that takes about two to four weeks,” he said. “During that period onshore, they’ll find somewhere nice and sheltered and they’ll sit there nice and quietly.

The one year old Rockhoppers need some time to molt before being released.

“So, basically we need to make sure they’re somewhere safe and secure where they’re not going to get attacked by dogs or foxes.” The Conservation Council of Western Australia’s Nick Dunlop says there could be a number of reasons why the penguins, more commonly known as Moseley penguins, are being found so far out of their usual habitat. “There are lots of strange things happening in the ocean at the moment due to changing ocean temperatures,” he said. “If they’re having trouble finding enough food and it takes them too far away from their breeding islands then they may come ashore and moult on another piece of land somewhere. “They can’t moult in the water because they will drown.” “So, the most likely explanation is they’ve dispersed further than normal because food is in short supply and when they got up to moulting weight, they’ve been too far away from their breeding colonies and they’ve come onshore in Australia on the mainland to replace their feathers.” A researcher and penguin expert at Murdoch University, Belinda Cannell, has recorded a spike in the number of dead penguins turning up on the South West coast. She says another breed, the Little Penguin, have washed up dead in much higher numbers this year, dotted along the coast from Safety Bay to the mouth of Donnelly River. Dr Cannell’s explanation is the Leeuwin Current which was much stronger in 2010 and early 2011. The current comes from northern WA bringing warmer water of lower salinity with fewer nutrients, resulting in less food than usual for the penguins. “It seemed to have some sort of impact on the fish supply that the penguins normally feed on as we had more than normal that were being found along the shoreline apparently dying from starvation, so they’re really underweight, no food in their stomachs,” she said. “It’s a signal that they’re travelling further to find fish supplies of some fish stocks so it’s more indicative that there’s nothing available for them closer to home.” Dr Edmond says he’s seen an alarming increase in the number of Rockhopper penguins – five in the last 12 months, compared with one or two in the previous 15 years. “Hopefully it is just a coincidence and it’s not that we’re having an epidemic of it,” he said. “There’s always a concern when we’re finding more than one animal. “I was speaking to DEC as well and there’s also been an increase in the number of baby seals that have been stranded over the last 12 months so that also makes a bit of concern, thinking ‘is there something else happening out there or is it just the season with the currents the way they are?” he asked. The author of the Field Guide to Birds of Australia books, Ken Simpson, has spent half of his life researching and cataloguing rare penguins. He says there’s been a drop in their numbers. “All the penguins of the entire world are dropping in numbers dramatically everywhere, almost all, with a couple of exceptions,” he said. “Their numerical total world population of each kind, whether it be from one or two islands or from 30 islands, like the Macaroni Penguins, they’re all dropping so it’s rare that they’re edging into endangerment or areas of concerns.” Mr Simpson says there are all sorts of theories as to why. “There’s various pollution problems, there may be starvation problems, the odd oil spill doesn’t help, some of the seas are becoming a bit more acidic than perhaps they ought to be,” he said. “There’s a lot of melt water going, fresh water, around Antarctica at the moment because of the steadily melting bits of the Ross Ice Shelf,” he said. “Slightly warmer water doesn’t favour food production, little tiny creatures that feed the fish, plankton size bits and pieces don’t grow so well in warm water so it’s a great combination of things and it’s very hard to pin it down.” Dr Dunlop says a diminished food supply is a concern. “We do know it’s got to do with changes in ocean climate at the time which normally affects food supply, their fish move away or their fish abundance declines,” he said. “There’s a consequence in change in sea temperature or change in current flows. “Normally the climate-induced effects are much greater than the fishery ones but they may actually work in concert in some situations.” He is urging anyone who finds a washed up penguin to keep it cool and contact either Dr Cannell at Murdoch University or the Department of Environment and Conservation so the reasons behind their death can be uncovered. And, vet David Edmond is organizing to take the two Northern Rockhopper penguins to a nearby island to release them.

A couple of locals on the beach with a not so local penguin

Dramatic Penguin Rescue Nearly Over

April 23, 2011

One of the world’s most dramatic wildlife rescues is coming to a successful conclusion on Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. Thousands of endangered northern rockhopper penguins, which were caught in thick oil slicks, have been saved in a month-long operation involving virtually all of the islands’ 260 inhabitants. The penguins were trapped in oil released by the freighter MV Oliva when it ran aground and broke up last month off Nightingale Island, 35km from the main island of Tristan da Cunha. Thousands of these delicately feathered birds – known locally as pinnamins – were coated in thick oil and all would have died but for the extraordinary intervention of local people.

“Just about everyone on the island has played a part in this operation,” Katrine Herian, an RSPB project officer based on the island, said to the Penguin Post. “It was an amazing, co-operative effort. Some people took boats to Nightingale to pick up oiled penguins – a very tricky task given the swells and winds there. “Carpenters on the main island built pens to keep them in. The main store – where tools, cement and machinery are stored – was cleared out and sand put down on the concrete floor so we could keep the penguins there.

“Then the island’s swimming pool was drained of nearly all its water and used as a home for cleaned birds. People even ransacked their freezers to find fish they could thaw out and use to feed the rockhoppers. They would have starved otherwise.”

In the end, about 4000 rockhoppers were saved, although Herian warned that it was impossible to say how many others might have died. “We won’t really know until next year when the birds start breeding again and we can get a proper chance to count numbers and see how badly they were affected.” The northern rockhopper penguin, Eudyptes moseleyi, is found on only a few islands in the Atlantic, with 99 per cent of its population making homes on Tristan da Cunha, a lonely, volcanic archipelago considered to be the world’s most remote inhabited group of islands. There is no airstrip and the nearest major ports are in South Africa.

Keeping track of the northern rockhoppers in such a location is not easy. Nevertheless, ornithologists have discovered that their numbers have plunged by more than 90 per cent since the 1950s, with factors such as climate change and over-fishing of squid and octopus – the penguins’ main source of food – being put forward as possible causes. As a result, the northern rockhopper is now classified as an endangered species. The wrecking of the MV Oliva, therefore, posed a significant threat to them. The ship was carrying 65,000 tonnes of soya beans from Brazil to China when it ran aground on March 16 on an islet off Nightingale Island. All 20 crewmen were rescued by islanders, but the vessel broke apart and released more than 1500 tonnes of oil on to the waters around the island, coating the rockhoppers.

Within a day, islanders and RSPB workers began their remarkable rescue operation. When winds and the swell were low, they sailed to the island in small boats and, using Tristan’s principal fishing vessel, the Edinburgh, as a command vessel, began shipping oiled rockhoppers back to the main island.”The birds get very distressed when they are coated in oil,” said Herian.

“They lose body temperature quickly in the water and preen themselves to get rid of the oil. They get weaker and weaker as they do that. Unless they get help, they die.” Capturing the birds as quickly as possible became a priority. Then they were transported to the main island, where they were corralled in pens, then showered and soaped to get rid of the oil and given liquid glucose feeds that vets usually give to pet cats and dogs to provide them with a quick energy boost. Then they were dried off under infra-red lamps.

“Many of the islands’ older inhabitants played a key role in this work,” said Herian. “These are remarkably hardy people and pensioners think nothing of walking many miles every day to get about. They did a lot of the hard work in cleaning up the penguins.” The local rescue mission was also given crucial support from a team from Sanccob, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, which arrived on the island on April 5. They brought specialist cleaning equipment, vitamins – and 20 tonnes of frozen pilchards.

The Sanccob team also installed three large hot-water geysers in the wash-bay to improve penguin-washing, as well as hundreds of metres of piping and cable to link to the island’s water and electrical supplies. In the end, a complex routine was established. Workers sprayed a fine mist of de-greasing agent over stricken penguins. Then the birds were washed in a warm bath of biodegradable soap and an antiseptic solution before being given a gentle clean round their eyes using a toothbrush. Later the rockhoppers were moved to the islanders’ swimming pool so that their swimming skills could be assessed. Those that passed the test were released into the Atlantic. “We will know next year how successful this operation has been when we count how many breeding pairs have returned to Tristan and find out how many survived the oil,” said Herian.

Oiled Northern Rockhopper Penguins