A hoiho reflects on their year in the spotlight

Department of Conservation —  18/11/2020

In 2019, hoiho/yellow-eyed penguin was crowned ‘Bird of the Year’ (BOTY) – the first seabird to win in fourteen years.

With kākāpō newly elected 2020 BOTY, we travelled down to the Otago Peninsula and sat down with a hoiho to ask them how their year in the spotlight went, and what they’re looking forward to once they hand over their title.

Yellow Eyed penguin / hoiho, Enderby Island.
📷: Greg Bowker

To begin, congratulations on a successful run with Bird of the Year

Thank you! It had been a big year no doubt, but honestly we were so delighted to have been leading Aotearoa and all its manu through these unprecedented times.

It’s been a rough year for everyone. We had a pretty abysmal breeding season. There were a few in my colony who got taken to rehabilitation – it really hits you when it’s that close to home. I think like everyone else we’re really looking forward to 2021 and taking another crack at it.

Hoiho/yellow-eyed penguin among bush and rocks.
📷: Sabine Bernert

People always want to hear about the moment of being crowned – what did it feel like to get that recognition?

To be honest, we didn’t even know for quite a while. We were elected in November, which is about the worst possible time I could imagine. We were basically flat-out trying to hatch and rear chicks. Have you seen how much one of those things can eat?

It was January by the time the wider community knew we were Bird of the Year, and even then, we weren’t able to properly engage until February once the chicks have finally fledged and headed out to sea.

We’ve drafted a pretty compelling letter to Forest & Bird outlining all the reasons they should move the competition to winter. Once it’s ready we will be circulating it among the other nesting seabirds, I think it’s one of the rare things that we can agree upon. It’s just a lot of responsibility to take on a during a busy time, you know? We’re over here trying to raise the next generation and that doesn’t leave much time for photo ops or national tours.

Three hoiho/yellow-eyed penguin huddled together.
📷: Chris Gin – chrisgin.com

How has life changed for you since taking on the role?

Well, we’ve been on the $5 bill for over twenty years now so a lot of us hoiho are already accustomed to the fame.

I think people really overestimate how much winning an award like this changes your life. It’s great to know that people really appreciate us – honestly, we were starting to doubt it for a while there – but day-to-day things are pretty much the same.  There’s fish to catch and hungry mouths to regurgitate in. Those responsibilities don’t stop once you become royalty.

Was the publicity a lot to handle at times?  

Ugh, I hate publicity. Maybe that doesn’t always come through since I’m so noisy, not afraid to raise my voice you know, but that doesn’t mean I’m extroverted.

On an ideal day it would just be me and my partner and our chicks, we’ve got our own song-and-dance going on. I don’t really like to interact with many other hoiho, let alone humans. It’s was quite the adventure to leave the comfort of our nest to step into the spotlight, but I can’t say I miss it.

At the start we were quite worried that all this new publicity was going to mean lots of paparazzi poking around, which is already a huge issue for us. Luckily people have been pretty respectful. My neighbour Darby got a bit spooked by one and spent an extra week in his nest during moulting, he lost a lot of weight. But otherwise I can say we’ve handled it exceptionally well.  

The shrill call of the hoiho/yellow-eyed penguin.
📷: Sabine Bernert

Kākāpō narrowly won the race this year, beating out the toroa (albatross) in the final hours. How does it feel to know that a forest bird is taking over?

Well, obviously we’re disappointed that it didn’t go to another seabird just as we are finally, finally getting the recognition we deserve. I mean kākāpō are photogenic and do well in memes, but can they add ‘being an integral linkage between the ocean and terrestrial environments’ onto their CV? I didn’t think so.

As part of The Seabird Coalition we welcome kākāpō into the role, they’ll do a stunning job of it. At the end of the day, we’re all birds and we need to stick together.

A hoiho/yellow-eyed penguin making it’s way across a pebble seashore.
📷: Stefan Marks

Finally – is there anything you would like to say to the people as you exit the role as Bird of the Year?

Look, it’s been a great year, publicity wise. But please don’t forget about us now that you’ve got a shiny and internationally-famous new BOTY, okay? We’re not out of the woods yet.

We will keep fighting though. We are some of the sole survivors in a long line of badass penguins. We may be threatened, but don’t count us out just yet.

Hey, that isn’t your dog over there is it?

Um, no. Sorry.

Well, tell ‘em to stay away, would you? We had a dog over here last week, sniffing around…

Last year my partner and I lost a chick to a dog, we haven’t really bounced back from it yet. You know, I actually don’t mind dogs myself, but it’s more of a long-distance relationship, and definitely only when they’re on a lead.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today, I know it’s the silly season for you too. I wish you the best for the next year and your graceful handover of the crown.

That is the first time that anyone has called me graceful, thank you.

Hoiho counts for the 2020/2021 breeding season will be released soon – stay tuned.

Learn more about the yellow eyed penguin / hoiho

Get involved with the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust

The Hoiho Governance Group has a strategy and a 5-year action plan to support the recovery of hoiho.

6 responses to A hoiho reflects on their year in the spotlight

    Sue Townson 29/11/2020 at 8:08 am

    A great way to put across a bird’s point of view!

    Jessie Russell 19/11/2020 at 9:24 am

    Brilliant! Love Mr Hoiho’s bold and cheeky personality.


    Well done to the Hoiho for those great comments!

    Peter Hallinan 18/11/2020 at 2:03 pm

    Ho ho ho for the hoiho 🙂


    Thanks for the information and the wit!


    Thanks to this hoiho for their interview – their insights, humour and time. So great to hear directly from one of the gang! Well done team. Love it.