Story: Penguins

Page 6. Little and yellow-eyed penguins

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The little penguin and the yellow-eyed penguin both breed on the New Zealand mainland.

Little penguins

The little penguin or kororā (Eudyptula minor) is found around New Zealand’s three main islands and the Chatham Islands. Birds in Canterbury populations are often called white-flippered penguins. Little penguins are also found in Australia, where they are often called fairy penguins. Research suggesting that there is a separate species (Eudyptula novaehollandiae) with a population in Otago was in 2016 being considered by the Birds New Zealand Checklist Committee.

Weighing only 1 kilogram, and 40 centimetres in length, little penguins are also named blue or little blue penguins, for the bluish plumage on the upper parts of the body. They are largely nocturnal on land, coming ashore after sunset. Their posture is tilted further forwards than the upright stance of other penguins.


Little penguins nest in burrows, caves, rock crevices and, more rarely, under bushes and trees, around virtually the entire coastline. The breeding season varies but usually begins somewhere from late June to September. Typically, two eggs are laid, three days apart. Sometimes a second clutch is laid after the first chicks have fledged.

Yellow-eyed penguins

The strongholds of the yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho (Megadyptes antipodes) are the subantarctic Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, where over 1,000 individuals breed at each site. They also breed on mainland Banks Peninsula, and from Ōamaru south to Foveaux Strait and the nearby islands, including Stewart and Codfish islands.

No visitors allowed

Codfish Island, to the west of Stewart Island, is the only place where you can find all three species of New Zealand’s mainland penguins – the yellow-eyed, little and Fiordland crested penguins. But don’t think that it is the perfect place to observe penguins: the island is out of bounds to people for the recovery of the flightless native parrot, the kākāpō.

This large penguin is about 76 centimetres long and weighs around 5 kilograms. It has yellow eyes, and stripes of yellow feathers from the eyes to the back of the head.

It is unusual in that it nests under dense vegetation – traditionally in forest – for protection; it is also the least social of all penguins. Nests are separated by tens and often hundreds of metres. The penguins remain year round at their breeding sites, feeding largely on fish found close inshore. Dependent on vegetative cover and a localised food source, they are particularly vulnerable on the mainland where much of the forest has been cleared for farming. Other comparatively recent factors such as overfishing, introduced predators and global warming have wreaked havoc with their breeding success. Although they are often cited as the world’s rarest penguins – recent estimates suggest there are between 3,500 and 5,000 individuals – the Galapagos penguin is probably even more endangered.

How to cite this page:

Lloyd Spencer Davis, 'Penguins - Little and yellow-eyed penguins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Lloyd Spencer Davis, published 12 Jun 2006, reviewed & revised 11 Jul 2016