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The Dunedin Wildlife Hospital has called in specialist reinforcements from across New Zealand and overseas, as it battles to care for virtually all of this season’s mainland hoiho/yellow eyed penguin chicks in their first fragile week of life.
Wildlife Hospital manager Jordana Whyte said the facility would care for about 200 hoiho chicks this breeding season, which began late last month with the first batch of chicks from North Otago.
Department of Conservation rangers had uplifted this year’s eggs from the hard-to-access Green Island breeding colony, off the coast of Waldronville, which had nearly all hatched at the Wildlife Hospital. Three eggs remained to hatch.
With rangers now also uplifting chicks from the Otago Peninsula and Catlins breeding sites and bringing them to the hospital for vet checks, care and feeding, there was a constant in-patient population of about 70 chicks.
"At that stage, they are strong enough to go back out to nests."
After taking in about 63% of the chicks from last year’s breeding season and achieving a 92% success rate with them, the Wildlife Hospital would this year care for almost 100% of the hoiho chicks from the Catlins to North Otago, she said.
"Basically, all of the mainland chicks are coming to the hospital for care this season."
The reason for that was the devastating impact of avian diphtheria, which had now spread to virtually all of the colonies and nests on mainland New Zealand.
This bacterial infection caused lesions in the mouths of the tiniest chicks, with very few able to survive it on their own.
However, about five days to a week of hospital care and lots of fish slurry was enough for most chicks to be strong enough to return to nests.
"We keep them for as little time as possible, depending on their health, and thankfully this level of intervention usually works.
"It is very labour intensive, but without treatment for avian diphtheria, they would die."
"The hoiho chicks need to be vet checked, weighed, and fed fish slurry five times a day, which results in a huge amount of poo and the cleanup from that - the amount of washing we are doing is incredible.
"We have two shifts of about 10 volunteers working each day, feeding and caring for the chicks, and keeping track of each little hoiho’s progress on a white board - it’s a massive undertaking.
"We are so grateful for their support and expertise - this task would be nearly impossible without it," Ms Whyte said.
She also paid tribute to the extraordinary organisational skills of Dunedin Wildlife Hospital veterinary nurse and practice manager Gina Martelli, who had been working to co-ordinate the volunteer effort since May.
"She has done a huge amount of work, and it is really paying off - the more organised you are, the better the outcomes for the chicks."
"This is our busiest and most expensive month, so if people can help us out with donations, we would be very grateful."