Blue duck/whio
Image: Sabine Bernert ©

Introduction

The blue duck/whio is only found in New Zealand. It is a nationally vulnerable species and faces a risk of becoming extinct.

Highlights

Population: Under 3,000
New Zealand status: Endemic
Conservation status: Nationally Vulnerable
Found in: Clean, fast-flowing rivers in the North and South Islands
Threats: Habitat loss, predation, disturbance

Sound recording:

Blue duck/whio song (MP3, 1,342K)
01:24 – Adult pair in a stream communicating and answering tape recorded calls.

Species information: Whio on NZ Birds Online

In this section

Blue duck/whio conservation

Did you know?

Whio use the river as a defence mechanism to evade threats – they go with the flow, submerse themselves, then retreat into roosts.

A unique taonga

Blue duck/whio are a taonga (treasured) species that Māori have a strong cultural, spiritual, and historic connection with. 

Their Māori name is whio in the North Island or ko whio whio in the South Island, which depicts the call of the male bird. They are forever watchful – they will always see you before you see them, and the male will sound the alarm call.

Whio are believed to be an ancient species of waterfowl, that appeared at a very early stage in evolutionary history. Their isolation in New Zealand has resulted in unique anatomical and behavioural features.

The whio is an iconic back-country species, and it features on the New Zealand $10 note.

The blue duck is a river specialist, and one of the few waterfowl worldwide that live year round on fast-flowing rivers.

They are a key indicator of healthy rivers and streams. They require clean, fast flowing streams in the forested upper catchments of rivers that provide high water quality, low sediment loadings, stable banks, over head canopy cover, and lots of varied invertebrate communities. The more breeding pairs of blue duck the healthier the river.

Fight for survival

Blue duck are found no where else in the world, and are rarer than some species of kiwi.

They were once widespread throughout New Zealand. Today they are limited to the less modified catchments of the Urewera, East Cape and central areas of North Island; and along the West Coast of South Island from Nelson to Fiordland.

Populations are now patchy and isolated. They have low reproductive success, and there are more males than females. There are around 640 pairs on the North Island, and just under 700 pairs on the South Island – a total population between 2,000 and 3,000, and that's declining.

Unless the causes decline are remedied (or reduced), the species faces a very real risk of becoming extinct.

Whio have adapted to a harsh environment that is prone to flooding. They nest along the riverbank in shallow, twig, grass and down-lined scrapes in caves; under river-side vegetation; or in log-jams, dry punga fronds, and toi toi. Floods can destroy nests, change the shape of the river, separate families, wash away food sources, and force whio into side streams where they lose the water as their first defence. All this can have an extreme impact on breeding success, and a significant impact on whio populations.

Recreational activities such as white water rafting, kayaking, hunting and fishing, disturbs whio families during breeding season.

Their habitat has been reduced by the clearance of vegetation from stream and river banks, water diversions, poor water quality, and damming for hydro-electric and irrigation schemes

Even where high quality river habitat remains, predation by introduced mammals is causing a significant decline of the species.

Stoats are the greatest danger. Whio nest in the same areas where stoats commonly feed. Stoats can easily follow the scent trail of the female to her hiding place, or sniff out the nest through scent carried on the breeze blowing up and down the river. They attack females on the nest, steal eggs, and take young ducklings from the river’s edge.

Feral cats, domestic dogs, and ferrets are also known predators. Rats and possums have been recorded at nests and are likely to take eggs.

During the summer moult period, blue duck are flightless making them even more vulnerable to attacks.

Unlike some endangered bird species, blue ducks cannot simply be transferred to off-shore islands, because they rely on large areas of quality, fast flowing riverine habitat that is unavailable on islands. The continued survival of this species is therefore largely dependent on the protection of secure source populations throughout mainland New Zealand. 

Threat management

Whio are scattered along the river in 1–5 km territories. They need a scale of management like no other species to ensure their survival. This can be extremely challenging and requires significant resources to manage their threats.

In Te Urewera we found 90% of nests failed in an area without predator control. Of the females, 46% were killed during the moult period when they retreated up small side stream to avoid disturbance.

In the Ruahines and in Taranaki, over 60% of the fledged juveniles died in areas outside of management. From a sample of 154 whio deaths recorded between 1989-2008, 89 were linked to predators (58%), 24 natural deaths, 22 human causes, and 19 were unknown. Stoats were the cause of 79 of the 89 predator deaths.

Battle for our Birds is DOC's successful national pest control programme that protects whio and other native species from predators.

Other whio conservation projects and the recovery plan also protect this rare species.

Whio Forever

You can help

  • Whio may seem tame and unafraid, but to keep them safe you should give them space and watch them from a distance.
  • Keep the waterways and the river environment clean.
  • When visiting, to take out what you bring in, and leave your dogs at home or keep them on a leash.
  • Observe guidelines for keeping the waterways free from didymo.
  • Support riparian planting and waterway protection in your area.

Reporting sightings

Assist us with the recovery of blue duck/whio by reporting all sightings. You can get sighting cards from DOC offices or send a report to the nearest DOC office.

Provide essential information: date, location, number seen.

If possible, information about their sex, age (juvenile or adult, size of juveniles), or what they were doing would also be useful.

Help protect New Zealand's native birds

  • Volunteer with DOC or other groups to control predators and restore bird habitats.
  • Don’t throw rubbish into water ways or storm drains.
  • Set traps for stoats or rats on your property. Get more information from your local DOC office.
  • Put a bell on your cat's collar, feed it well, and keep it indoors at night.
  • Plant a range of native plants that provide food year-round to encourage birds into your garden.
When visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
  • Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep your dog under control.
  • Prevent the spread of pests. Check your gear for mice and rats when visiting pest-free islands.
  • Use available access ways to get to the beach. Stay out of fenced-off areas. Leave nesting birds alone.
  • Get your dog trained in avian awareness, and help save forest birds like kiwi and weka.
  • Follow the water care code. Keep water craft speed to 5 knots within 200 metres of the shore.
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