Dog attacks on little blue penguins disappointing

12 Oct 2021

A contribution by the Department of Conservation

Recent dog attacks on little blue penguins/korora on the Coromandel Peninsula has prompted the Department of Conservation to remind dog owners to control their pets. It’s nesting season for many of New Zealand’s beach-dwelling birds and everyone in the community has a responsibility to look after our wildlife. 

In the last month, Annemieke Kregting from Kuaotunu Bird Rescue has received three reports of little blue penguins being attacked by dogs. Two of these birds recovered and were released but the third was buried where it was found. “These penguins were adult birds who were most likely incubating eggs,” says Annemieke. “When a dog kills one of these adults, we not only lose that bird from the population, but also the chicks they could have raised.” 

Residents walking their dogs at off-lead beaches should not allow their animals to roam. Keep your dog close, well controlled and near the waterline. If you cannot call your dog back to you, then it should not be off its lead. 

Annemieke says owners should never let dogs roam freely through sand dunes or the rocky shoreline where penguins often nest. “No dog should ever be allowed to chase birds,” she said. “Even though some birds can fly away, you are still teaching your dog that it is OK to chase small, feathered creatures. Dogs don’t know the difference between a seagull and a penguin, and unfortunately penguins have flippers not wings.”

DOC Whitianga ranger, Amy Blair, says it’s important to remember we are sharing the beaches with some very unique and endangered birds. 

Little blue penguins are classified as “At Risk - Declining”, their biggest threats being dogs, predation by other animals and being hit by cars when crossing roads. They are most at risk when they come ashore to breed during spring and summer, and to moult in autumn. 

Although classified as “Recovering”, the northern New Zealand dotterel/tuturiwhatu is more at risk than some species of kiwi, with only about 2,500 birds remaining. These shorebirds nest in open areas often close to residential or developed areas. Nests are easily destroyed by careless feet, dogs and off-road vehicles. 

At this time of year, little blue penguins are incubating eggs along the rocky shoreline, and dotterels are laying their eggs above the high-tide line on sandy and stony beaches. “The easiest way to help the breeding success of these birds is to give them space and have your dog under control at all times,” says Amy. “‘My dog doesn’t chase birds,’ is a phrase we hear a lot, but even so a fury, four-legged animal walking past a nesting bird is still perceived as a threat. When birds feel threatened, they will leave their nest to try and draw the predator away, leaving their eggs exposed to the sun, rain, or other predators such as black-backed gulls.

“If you come across a dotterel that is acting injured or darting back and forth, you may be too close to its eggs. Put a lead on your dog and walk away slowly towards the water, being careful not to step on the well camouflaged eggs. 

“Newly hatched chicks are especially vulnerable, stay well away from any fenced areas and sand dunes, this is where they like to hide from predators and seek shelter from the hot sun. When chicks are disturbed, they can die from exhaustion as they cannot eat or get to their feeding grounds at the water’s edge.

“Domestic cats are also a huge problem for dotterels. An adult bird incubating eggs or an unfledged chick make easy prey. We strongly encourage owners to keep their cats inside at night. 

“We put in so much time and effort to protect these charismatic little birds. It’s so frustrating to see careless dog owners at the beach or cat prints near an empty nest. We can’t put out cat traps at beaches near houses, so it’s up to owners to be responsible.”

Dog owners heading somewhere new should find out if it’s dog friendly before they go. There may be prohibited areas, on-lead only areas or seasonal restrictions. Particularly, on Coromandel beaches between August and March, people will see areas roped off and signs to warn the public of nesting birds. 

Dog owners ignoring the rules or regulations may be issued an on-the-spot infringement fine of up to $800. If a dog causes the death or serious injury of protected wildlife, the owner is liable for conviction to imprisonment for up to 12 months or a fine of up to $20,000.

For more information, check out the DOC website, www.doc.govt.nz. If you have concerns about the welfare of wildlife or come across an injured bird on your beach walk, call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) for advice.