Whio Journal: Saving our iconic blue duck

Department of Conservation —  05/03/2020

The whio, or blue duck, appears on our $10 note and the wild rivers of the back country, and not many places in between. As such, few New Zealander’s know whio exist, and most will have never seen or heard one. With just 3,000 left in the wild, a partnership between Genesis and DOC called Whio Forever was struck in 2011 to protect and grow the population of this national taonga. Monthly ‘Whio Journal’ will take a closer look at what it takes to bring this iconic species back from the brink of extinction.

But first of all, let’s understand a bit more about whio and why they are so special.

Unlike most ducks who have been around for approximately a half-million or million years, whio (pronounced “fee-or”) has existed for tens of millions of years, making it the only member of its genus. Their isolation in New Zealand has resulted in unique features, the most striking of which is its adaption to live on fast-flowing rivers. One of only four waterfowl in the world to inhabit white-water rivers year round, it has large webbed feet that act like flippers in the water, which fold back like an umbrella to move quickly downstream. Even day-old ducklings can navigate fast-moving rapids!

Even day-old duckling can navigate fast-moving rapids.
📷: Tara Swan

Another unusual feature is the fact that this is a duck that doesn’t quack! Whio get their name from the shrill whistle of the male, from which the Māori name ‘whio’ is derived, while the female possesses a low rattling growl. Listen to a pair kōrero.

The strange and wonderful features don’t end there – whio also have a ‘soft’ bill. The black fleshy membrane at the end of their bill enables whio to feel for insect larvae on rocks, and doubles as a kind of bumper-bar – protecting it from the abrasive of rocks which would wear it away. It also has filters like those of a baleen whale enabling it to extract these larvae from the water.

Whio have a soft bill and filters to enable them to extract aquatic insect larvae from rocks and water.
📷: Steph Kerrisk

Nicknamed ‘ghost ducks’ by Māori, whio blend beautifully into the rocks and water of their environment, with a slate blue-grey body and rich chestnut speckles on their breast. Their yellow eyes face forward so that just like us, they can see what is happening ahead.

Whio are monogamous, fiercely territorial and make great parents. The female whio incubates the egg for about 35 days while her partner stands guard, after which they take care of their ducklings during the 70-80 days until fledging. They are staunch defenders of their patch, flying up and down their stretch of river (between 1-5 km) to protect their borders at the start and end of each day.

Whio blend beautifully in their river environment.
📷: Anthonty Behrens

In pre-European times, the blue duck’s habitat ranged from the mountains to the sea throughout the North and South islands. Today, they are mostly restricted to the wild and clean rivers of the back country. Key to their survival is healthy, clean water as they cannot survive in waterways containing large amounts of sediment or pollution – where you find whio, you find a healthy awa/river.

So why do they need our help? Like many of our other native manu/birds, habitat loss and predators are the key reasons for the blue duck’s population decline. Stoats are their worst threat as they predate on nesting females, steal eggs, and take young ducklings from the river’s edge. With just 3,000 whio left in the wild, whio face extinction within three generations without our help.

Whio make excellent parents.
📷: Bubs Smith

Unlike some endangered bird species, whio cannot simply be transferred to pest-free islands for protection, because they don’t feature the fast-flowing river habitat that whio are so uniquely adapted too. The continued survival of this species is therefore dependent on the protection of secure populations on the mainland through predator control.

A whio pair’s territory is large, which makes protecting whio a daunting task as it requires significant resources to manage their threats. Thankfully, in 2011 a partnership between DOC and Genesis was established to fast-track the species recovery programme.

Whio can only live in pristine waterways.
📷: Crystal Brindle

Named the Whio Forever programme, the aim of the partnership between DOC and Genesis is to effectively secure the species by protecting priority populations at eight ‘security sites’ (four in the North Island, and four in the South Island). Recovery work is also being undertaken at various ‘recovery sites’. The programme is supported by breed-for-release programmes at wildlife centres, with eggs sourced from both captive pairs and from the wild.

Another aim of the partnership is to encourage participation from the community to assist with trapping. Numerous groups ranging from iwi to schools, hunting groups to farmers, tourism businesses to nature enthusiasts, help manage traps in their area. This work is supported by the Whio Manager App which allows individuals and groups involved in whio protection to record sightings. This is then collated in a database to help build the national picture for whio recovery across the country.

They nest in burrows, caves and under logs along river banks.
📷: Joe Carson

Nine years since the partnership began, the numbers of protected pairs has more than doubled from 298 in 2011, to 725 in 2019. This has been achieved by protecting more than 1,500 km of river with 5,080 traps.

With at least half of the security sites having surpassed their pair-targets, the programme is well and truly into full swing. But much more needs to be done to secure whio in the wild, and experience and research will help point the way forward.

Forest & Bird’s Chief Conservation Advisor Kevin Hackwell, DOC Biodiversity Ranger Andrew ‘Max’ Smart, former Genesis Group Manager of Corporate Relations Emma-Kate Greer, and DOC Commercial Partnerships Director Geoff Ensor visiting the Northern Fiordland Security Site where whio have surpassed their 50-pair target.

📷: DOC, Amanda Haigh

For our second Whio Journal, DOC ranger Jason Malham will share with us a long-term whio study he is leading in Kahurangi National Park. He and fellow rangers undertake fortnightly trips (covering A LOT of kms), to monitor whio closely from early spring through to the end of summer. Mā te wā!

March is Whio Awareness Month and there are heaps of ways to celebrate our beautiful blue duck. Head over to our website for more details about competitions, calls-to-action and events, or visit the Whio Forever Facebook page.

One response to Whio Journal: Saving our iconic blue duck

    Karen Pratt 05/03/2020 at 3:54 pm

    So many fascinating facts about the Whio! Really enjoyed the read.