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By Chris Woolston


Yellow-eye Express

A penguin with an attitude leaves a young man with a bloody memento of their meeting.

OF ALL THE ENDANGERED ANIMALS that have ever attacked me, the yellow-eyed penguin is my favorite. It certainly didn't win that honor with good looks. Forget the sharp black and white contrasts that distinguish other penguins -- yellow-eye plumage runs splotchy from beak to toe. The mottled-grey body supports a head splashed with patches of pale yellow reminiscent of a skin disease. The only pure color lurks in the cat-like eyes -- bright yellow and spooky. Actually, the yellow-eye won the honor by being the only endangered animal that ever attacked me. But if I get trampled by bison or pecked by whooping cranes tomorrow, the yellow-eye will still top my list. Adventurous, confident, misguided and doomed, yellow-eyed penguins deserve our admiration. I just don't recommend trying to pick one up.

The assault occurred on the yellow-eye's home turf: New Zealand's Stewart Island, a forest-covered fishing outpost at the southern end of the country. Until the attack, I was enjoying a relaxing, gore-free summer retreat with a dozen other foreign exchange students. We ran around on the sandy beaches, pried mussels and abalone off rocks in knee-deep water, and watched for parrots in the rain forest. At night we played cards and digested abalone fritters. As the sun set on my last day there, one of our chaperones, a grey-haired retired park ranger named Mr. Blake, asked for volunteers for a final hike. Rain had started to fall, and no one was interested.

Then he mentioned the penguins. He said we could see yellow-eyed penguins, up close. Within minutes, five of us were out the door.

Ranger Blake led us away from a tiny harbor crowded with three lobster boats, past a few darkened trailers, and into the rain forest. The trail traversed a steep hill a few hundred yards above the beach. As we walked through the shadows of cabbage palms and giant tree ferns, rats rustled in the undergrowth and possums hissed in the branches. The rain picked up, and the twilight faded. I pointed my flashlight at the thick carpet of ferns along the trail. Listening to the surf breaking at the bottom of the hill, I felt a thousand miles away from the penguins.

Like most people, I had always associated penguins with ice floes and blizzards -- not rainforests. Cartoons and Christmas cards make it easier to imagine penguins cavorting with polar bears in the Arctic than scuttling through ferns. Even as Ranger Blake started telling penguin stories, I remained skeptical.

I decided that I had stumbled into a New Zealand version of a snipe hunt. The hill was clearly too steep and choked with vegetation for penguins. Ranger Blake had tricked yet another rube into chasing a bogus animal through the darkness.

Perhaps sensing our sagging confidence, Ranger Blake said New Zealand holds a prominent position in penguin ecology and natural history. Six of the world's eighteen penguin species live on New Zealand and the surrounding islands. The oldest known penguin fossils -- 40 million years old -- were found on New Zealand's South Island. The same area gave rise to one of the largest penguins in history, Pachydyptes ponderosus, a five-and-a-half foot, 300-pound monster that waddled the Earth 20 million years ago.

And, of course, New Zealand is the home of the yellow-eye, Megadyptes antipodes, the most endangered of all penguins. Some yellow-eyes nest in beach-side tussock grass on the South Island, others nest on forested hills on Stewart Island. Unlike other penguins, which alternate marathon nest-tending with month-long fishing expeditions, yellow-eyes commute from the sea to the nest every night. All we had to do was stand between them and their nests, Ranger Blake said. He told us split up, sit down, and wait.

My skepticism was soon drowned by a sound from the beach -- a squawking that was part bugle and part kazoo. The first landing party of yellow-eyes had arrived, and they would soon come crashing through the forest.

I was about to witness a waddling contradiction. But, as I later realized, the penguin was about to see something much more sinister and unaccountable. As hard as it might be to picture a penguin in a rainforest, the yellow-eye belonged there. I, on the other hand, belonged elsewhere. I was a foreigner. Worse, I was a mammal.

According to the normal rules of migration and evolution, mammals shouldn't exist on Stewart Island. By the time mammals arrived in Australia and New Guinea, New Zealand was surrounded by thousands of miles of water. Any koala or bush pig or hairy whatever that wanted to colonize New Zealand would have to swim, fly, or cling to a drifting raft of flotsam to get there. That was the rule.

Polynesian canoes broke the rule a thousand years ago when they landed at New Zealand. The canoes held pigs and rats, as well as a few people handy with spears. Birds such as the moa -- a twelve foot tall cache of feathers and meat -- rapidly became extinct. European mammals "discovered" New Zealand in 1642; and it wasn't long before mice, dogs, deer, cats, sheep and, eventually, rugby players covered the islands. Yellow-eyed penguins, like many native bird species, have almost disappeared in the new, mammal-dominated ecology.

Slow, fat and flightless, many New Zealand birds are completely mammal-friendly. In 1987, a female German shepherd learned to listen for the calls of kiwis, flightless nocturnal birds that whistle in the night. Within a few months, she slaughtered approximately 500 kiwis out of the local population of about 1,000. We shouldn't give this dog much credit. Kiwis are basically well-developed drumsticks with no methods of defense. The average gimpy basset hound could be an efficient kiwi killer.

The problem for New Zealand birds goes beyond speed or body-type. It's also a problem of attitude. They foolishly cling to the behaviors of their ancestors, behaviors which made sense in the days before the mammal invasion. But of all the New Zealand birds, the yellow-eyed penguins have perhaps the worst attitude, and, as a result, dogs and even rats are getting yellow-eyed meals.

Yellow-eyes maintain a strong awareness of danger, but it's largely misplaced. They seem to save all their cunning and caginess for the sea where killer whales treat penguins like croutons. Once they reach land, they are completely oblivious to danger. Yellow-eyes burrow under houses, and they'll stick their beaks right in the faces of the family pets. On occasion, they'll even waddle right up to flashlight wielding foreign exchange students.

The squawks grew closer. Some twigs snapped, and the ferns started to shake. I turned on my flashlight just in time to see it emerge from the bush: a yellow-eye moving directly towards us.

The penguin didn't seem surprised by the welcoming party. With its head down, the stubby, two-foot-tall bird kept charging uphill. Rain and seawater glistened on the mottled back and mud streaked the white belly. It squawked once and waddled right past my shoes. Thinking, like any seventeen-year-old, that it would be cool to hold a penguin, I made the big mistake.

I reached down and wrapped my fingers securely around its flippers. Then I yanked the ten-pound bird off the ground, turned around to show it off, and felt the sharp beak turning the back of my hand into hamburger.

In this meeting between bird and mammal, the mammal was left dabbing blood on the bottom of his shirt. After I dropped it, the yellow-eye quickly got back to the work of climbing towards the nest, and we walked down the trial to find the other students. They, too, had seen penguins, but none of them was bleeding.

In good light I can still show people my penguin scar. It's a small, faint mark, and it took months of persistent scab picking to ensure that it would still be visible today. I'm still, many years later, exhilarated about having been attacked by a penguin. It's a small sign that some native New Zealand birds can still defend themselves.

Unfortunately, defeating a single adolescent male won't be enough for the yellow-eyes, and they will never fully recover from the mammalian invasion of New Zealand. The guarantee from their ancestors has expired; the deep forest is no longer a safe place to raise a family. The truth was right there in front of them, a sign six feet two inches tall telling them: Don't take another step into this forest. Spend more time in the sea. You're a penguin, not a bush pig.

But just as it was hard for me to picture a penguin in a rainforest, it's hard for penguins to picture predators on land. And it will cost them. My defeat, my shame, will never be shared by the rats and dogs on Stewart Island. The mammals will continue following scent trails that lead directly to nests. And the yellow-eyed penguins will continue struggling uphill, waddling aggressively toward extinction.