The Great Penguin Nest Box Challenge – a DIY design project

Little penguins nest all around New Zealand’s coast, often close to humans. Over time, our activities of building homes, recreation areas and facilities like ports have eaten away at their habitat. Penguins are a delightful part of our natural heritage, even if they can be a bit noisy and sometimes smelly to live with at close quarters.

penguin chick

A penguin chick has its flipper measured as part of Te Papa’s research on their biology in Marlborough, 2015. Photo: Susan Waugh, Copyright: Te Papa.

Penguins in peril

Te Papa researchers are working in Marlborough and with community groups in the South Island currently on penguin conservation projects. The plight of the little penguin, New Zealand’s smallest penguin species, is characterised by the declining populations and reducing habitat at a national scale. Department of Conservation have listed them as ‘At Risk – Declining’ in their latest threat assessment.

Can you design a perfect penguin home?

We want to hear from you! Send us your designs or photos for the perfect penguin box. You can do this by using our contact form, posting your designs on Flickr or other photo-sharing website and posting a link in the blog comments, or posting your suggestions on the blog comments.

We created a ‘DIY challenge’ video to show you the designs we came up with, but we’d love to hear from you about what could be alternative ways to do the same job. Te Papa needs some great penguin box designs to use in our field research programmes, and we’d love to use some of the designs that you come up with in our work. Its not quite ‘The Block’ (as you’ll see we’re not very colour coordinated), but we all pitched in with our creative-thinking hats on, and came up with three designs we thought would work well in the field.

Click here to see our 5min penguin box design challenge video

If you are going to create boxes to put out around the coast, this may required permission from your local authorities, and a level of monitoring to make sure they’re positioned in the best places or aren’t causing hazards for other coastal users or wildlife. Make sure you check with your local authorities and DOC offices about how to do this according to their requirements, and where the best places are to create a penguin sanctuary in your area.

If you have any questions, please get in touch, send us your designs or photos, and we’ll see where the challenge takes us! You can comment on this blog or use our contact form.

Community initiatives

There are some really great community initiatives underway to increase public awareness of penguin conservation, such as those by the West Coast Penguin Trust, Forest and Bird’s group Places for Penguins,  and the Otago-based Penguin Place. We need to be aware as a sea-loving nation that we have the privilege of sharing our wonderful wild coast with many species who depend on it for their very survival.

To find out more about what seabird research and conservation activities are going on in your area, you can also get in touch with the Australasian Seabird Group – a joint specialist group BirdLife Australia and Birds New Zealand. There are postings and opportunities for experts and non-experts alike to get involved in activities.

Efforts such as making sure we don’t leave trash at the beach, or ensuring our dogs, off-lead, don’t do damage to wildlife while we’re out walking, make all the difference for these little guys. Keeping penguins safe from traffic is another on-going need, and there are some impressive major projects happening to reduce road accidents in Westland, including a several-kilometre-long fencing project to keep penguins on the seaward side of the road, safe from traffic.

West Coast Penguin Trust's fence to keep penguins safe from road accidents in Westland. Photo West Coast Penguin Trust; Copyright West Coast Penguin Trust

West Coast Penguin Trust’s fence to keep penguins safe from road accidents in Westland. Photo West Coast Penguin Trust; Copyright West Coast Penguin Trust.

Building the perfect penguin home

One fine spring Saturday, a few of the Te Papa team got together with some basic building materials, and stormed up a few penguin nest box designs to inspire our readers/viewers to emulate or improve on! Our criteria for a perfect home for a pair of parent penguins were:

  • big enough to fit 4 penguins (2 adults and 2 chicks) – about the size of 4 x 2-litre plastic milk containers
  • Weather and wind-proof (ie won’t blow away, keep out the rain), but with potentially enough ventilation to avoid overheating on warm days
  • Would keep out a dog or other maurauding predator – some of our designs used a tube entrance made of a plastic flower pot with the base cut off – these need to be firmly attached to allow for penguin egress.
  • Can be opened by penguin researchers and wildlife managers to see whats going on inside
  • Can be packed “flat-pack” and easily assembled, so they can be taken to penguin habitat easily by vehicle or backpack. We used cable-ties for many of the attachments – quick, easy and durable!
  • Economical and simple to make – we used 1/3 of a sheet of ply for each, and a few nails and ‘garden-stake’ type batons. Make sure there are no sharp or pointy objects on the finished item, to avoid injuring the inhabitants. Instead of using hinges, we used a rubber strip (e.g. old tyre inner-tube), nailed-through or drilled holes and used cable-ties – these options reduce the cost and complexity of designs. Our designs used all new materials, as there are strict microbial biosecurity requirements on some of our research sites, but for your own deployments, recycled timber might be ok.

To find out more about the research findings of our work , read our blogs on Te Papa’s penguin research in Marlborough.

Below are our designs shown in the video, with the necessary measurements to help you recreate a box like we did.

Design and dimensions for the pyramid shaped penguin box. The measures and coloured lines are colour matched. Copyright Te Papa.

Design and dimensions for the pyramid shaped penguin box. The measures and coloured lines are colour matched. Copyright Te Papa.

Oblong box with two baffles in the entrance and a sliding door at one end. Copyright Te Papa.

Oblong box with two baffles in the entrance and a sliding door at one end. Copyright Te Papa.

This box has 2 triangular ends, 2 flat sides - one overlaps the other at the top, and an internal baffle with a brace on it to create an entranceway. Copyright Te Papa.

This box has 2 triangular ends, 2 flat sides – one overlaps the other at the top, and an internal baffle with a brace on it to create an entranceway. Copyright Te Papa.

Thanks to all the folks who helped out in the preparation of this video – Te Papa photographer Jean-Claude Stahl, Milo the Border Terrier, and our ‘volunteers’ Ruth, Robin, Johnny, Lizzy, Mai, and Phil.

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