Tawaki penguins

Standing less than 2 feet tall, the tawaki penguin of southwestern New Zealand is pretty cute. It has a white front and black back, with bushy yellow eyebrow-looking feathers, which may be related to the story the local Maori people tell about the small penguins.

The island natives’ legend says the tawaki is a god who caused heavy rains in the region. Maybe tawaki became the god of rain because the yellow feathers above the bird’s eyes look like lightning, or maybe it’s because they live in a very wet place.

The penguins are unique for a couple of reasons besides their lightning-yellow eyebrows. One is that they nest on land under rocks, stumps and bushes in groups called colonies. The other is that they swim a long, long way to find food. According to a recent study, they may travel 2,000 to 4,200 miles after they are done laying and hatching their eggs.

To give you an idea of how far that is, it’s about 2,700 miles from the city of Los Angeles — on America’s Pacific Coast — to New York City on the nation’s East Coast. So some tawaki penguins are swimming almost twice that far.

The birds swim all of that way in about 13 weeks. That means some of the penguins were averaging anywhere from 10 to 60 miles a day, a whole lot of swimming for such a small creature.

Traveling such a long way at a time when the ocean waters are filled with fish made little sense to scientists studying the animals. So to explain the behavior they are guessing that the long swims may be behavior learned a long time ago from their ancestor penguins who lived even farther south.

The biggest threat to the small, ocean-swimming birds is stray dogs, but their eggs are also eaten by rats and weasels that were brought to the island by sailors and other visitors. Fishing nets left in the ocean can also trap and kill the birds.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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