Do you recognise the bird on our $10 note?

Can you remember what it is, without looking? The correct answer is a Whio (blue duck)... so what is it that makes this peculiar little bird so special?

Native to New Zealand the beautiful little blue duck, is classified as Endangered and conservation efforts are underway to help protect the species from extinction. March is Whio Awareness Month.

While you may not think it looks that exciting at first glance, the Whio (pronounced "Fee-o") is a fascinating creature, not the least because of its beautiful blue feathers. 

The Whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) is one of the many birds that are endemic (exclusively native) to New Zealand. 

Believed to be derived from an ancient species of waterfowl, the Whio evolved from being a mottled brown colour to have a brilliant blue plumage; and it's one of the only four bird species in the world that live in white water rivers all year round.

So let’s meet the Whio...The blue duck’s physical characteristics have evolved specifically to survive in fast-flowing rapids. They have a fleshy lip at the tip of their duck bill, designed to protect them as they forage for prey (insect larvae) on the rocks in the river.

They’ve got forward facing eyes. This means that rather than having the side eye seen in many birds, they can look straight ahead, in order to focus on their prey through the rapids. 

They have webbed feet like most other ducks, which are used to navigate the slippery rocks and fast-flowing water of their natural habitats.

And there’s an innate instinct for survival! Even the hatchlings are able to negotiate themselves through New Zealand’s cold river water with amazing dexterity.

The Whio’s plumage means the female and males look almost identical: The colour blue has evolved over time in order to help camoflauge the ducks in the river.

Whios choose the best river water possible. If you find Whio next to a river, it usually means that the water is fast-flowing and clean.

What’s the significance of the Whio in New Zealand history?

Māori established a definitive spiritual and emotional connection with Whio. They are still to this day considered as Taonga (sacred treasure). The bird originally gained its name from Māori because of the sound the male Whio makes.

Considered the 'watchbird’ of the forest, the Whio could see you and make its unique call almost instantly. This meant that they were the perfect friends to have near your iwi during times of war, almost as an early warning system for intruders, which is one of the reasons why many Māori tribes stationed themselves next to rivers.

However the warriors could never get too close! Blue ducks are monogamous and extremely territorial. Once they have found a mate for life, they pick a spot of land and guard it with their life. Loudly and aggressively. The male lets out its iconic “Fee-o” sound and the female makes a gravely rattling sound, so it can create quite a commotion if the ducks feel threatened, making ample noise to scare off any other ducks that might want a piece of their river real estate.

Once they have settled into their new home, a couple of Whio will breed and produce around 5-6 pale white eggs. The male will stand close and guard the female during the incubation period. This usually lasts for just over a month before the eggs hatch and fledglings emerge. The offspring are protected for a further 80 days before making their own way in the wild.

However, even though they are one of the most unique birds in New Zealand, the Whio is also one of the most endangered. Due to their remaining flightless during nesting seasons, they have become a massive target for introduced predators such as stoats and rats, and there are less than 3,000 Whio left.

There is only a 10% chance of a Whio duckling living past the nesting age. And because they have adapted to living in the temperate climate next to fast flowing rivers, they cannot be moved to a safer, off-shore islands like other birds.

DoC is currently working using traps and dogs in order to catch the predators that are depleting Whio numbers, but other factors are also at play. Floods due to global warming, unclean rivers and humans kayaking down rivers during breeding season, all lead to the depletion of the birds that have become such an iconic part of New Zealand history.

At Kidsfirst, we want our children to keep learning about the importance of keeping our natural environments clean, and to celebrate how New Zealand wildlife enriches our identity and helps to forge our reputation for being a country that treasures nature. As responsible kiwis we can make choices to help keep our New Zealand river waters healthy, to learn and combat global warming and to respect wildlife enough to give it the space it needs to survive. If we support our children in this way of thinking, birds and animals like the Whio will have a better chance of thriving in the future.

Here’s what a Whio’s calendar looks like for the year:

April-July:

Time for romance. 

Whio start to look for a mate; find their match and settle down.

August: 

Time to find a piece of paradise, build a nest and breed.

September:

Female Whio sit on their eggs for around 35 days while their mate stands guard.

October:

Excitement – the ducklings are hatching.

Nov–Dec:

The Whio family hang out for about 80 days from birth to fledgling when young Whio start to find their wings.

January:

Teenage Whio fledge and leave the nest. Adult Whio are now vulnerable as they start to moult.

February:

Time to release WHIONE (captive bred) fledglings back into the wild.

March:

Whio Awareness Month. Time to let people know about Whio!

 

 

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