Chick burrows deep in to foster mum's heart

CHEEP AND CHEERFUL: National Aquarium penguin keeper and diver Miriam Strachan with the rescued 10-week-old  little penguin.
JOHN COWPLAND

CHEEP AND CHEERFUL: National Aquarium penguin keeper and diver Miriam Strachan with the rescued 10-week-old little penguin.

It was a shaky start to life for the newest little penguin at the National Aquarium in Napier.

The chick and its father were rescued by roading contractors when they accidentally dug up their burrow near the Napier Port.

At just a few days old, the chick - whose eyes were yet to open - could fit in penguin keeper Miriam Strachan's palm when the Department of Conservation brought the penguins to the aquarium.

The adult was returned to the wild but the baby would not have survived without its burrow, Strachan said.

She has since become its adoptive mother, hand-rearing the chick for the past 10 weeks. It chirps up to the sound of her voice as she approaches its cage.

The sex of the chick is yet to be determined, as its feathers haven't grown long enough to be taken for testing. It will gradually lose its fluffy grey appearance as its waterproof feathers grow.

Little penguins, also known as little blue penguins, live along much of New Zealand's coast.

They spend their day at sea, coming ashore at night to sleep in burrows, caves and often under buildings.

Strachan covers its face with her hand and slides a fish through her fingers and into its mouth, trying to replicate how a mother feeds its young. After swallowing the fish, the chick shakes its feathers in satisfaction.

It is weighed every day to make sure it's steadily gaining weight. The scales now read a healthy 800 grams.

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"It looks at us as a food source, like parents out in the wild, so it'll definitely be staying with us," Strachan said.

The chick will be kept in quarantine until tests prove it is healthy enough for staff to slowly introduce it to the 13 other little penguins in the cove.

Some of the birds are territorial and could pick on the chick, so its introduction needs to be carefully managed.

 - The Dominion Post

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