Two penguins use a purpose-built underpass to cross a road in Oamaru, New Zealand.

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A town in New Zealand's South Island has built an underpass especially for penguins

The little blue penguins -- the world's smallest -- are in decline due to human activity

Auckland, New Zealand CNN  — 

It’s not easy being the world’s tiniest penguin.

New Zealand’s blue-feathered korora – or little penguins – are more comfortable at sea than waddling on land, where the perils of cars, dogs and inquisitive humans await.

Found along the length of the South Pacific country’s coastline, their numbers are in decline but the South Island town of Oamaru has stepped in to make the birds’ lives easier by building them their very own underpass.

The tunnel below the road is a first for New Zealand’s little penguins and was originally conceived by marine biologist Philippa Agnew, a researcher at Oamaru’s Blue Penguin Colony.

The colony’s general manager Jason Gaskill told CNN that the town council, local tourism body and civil works companies got on board and that a number of companies donated labor and goods to see the underpass built.

“I would say that the project itself has caught the imagination of a lot of people – the local community included,” he said.

The penguins fish at sea but nest on land and Gaskill said that at this part of Oamaru Harbour – by the colony– the birds had to cross a busy road to get to their chicks once the sun went down.

Little blue penguins are under threat from human activity.

Hundreds of little blue penguins nest in boxes at the colony where special lighting is in place to allow the reclusive birds to be observed by visitors.

But car lights are a different story, with white light blinding the penguins, Gaskill said, and making the road between the sea and colony potentially hazardous.

“It’s a well-used and well-travelled road, particularly in the summer when the penguins have their chicks and their movements are highest,” Gaskill said. “At most of the other places where the penguins come ashore there isn’t the volume of traffic or there are no roads. So it was kind of a special case.”

Preferred route

The area’s popularity with the penguins also made it popular with tourists who wanted to see the birds, which are just under 30 centimeters (12 inches) tall and weigh around a kilogram (2 pounds).

“There was potential danger there, so what we wanted to do was create an environment where people, penguins and vehicles could move freely. “

The underpass took around three weeks to build and was completed in September.

Gaskill said the feedback since then had been “almost universally positive,” and most importantly the birds had taken to it, with up to 20 ducking below the road each night.

“Penguins are quite habitual, so once they’ve discovered that there’s a safe route they’ll tend to use it.”

In decline

John Cockrem, Professor of Comparative Endocrinology at New Zealand’s Massey University has been carrying out research on the penguins at Oamaru.

He told CNN that the little penguins would use the underpass when they came ashore at Oamaru throughout the year but that there had been resistance to it from some people in the community.

Residents had been concerned about the impact it could have on the historic nature of the harbor or that locals would be unable to view the birds free of charge, he said.

But the underpass and a fence guiding the penguins to it blended in, he said, and the birds were still visible:

“They can see them coming up the boat ramp instead of crossing the boat ramp,” he said. “If you stand quietly there are a number of places you can see the birds.”

Road to recovery

Little blue penguins are native to New Zealand and southern Australia – where they are known as fairy penguins, Cockrem said.

“Here in New Zealand little penguins are found along the coast of the North and South Islands – and unfortunately they are declining along the entire New Zealand coastline.”

The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony was a model that benefited tourism and the protected species, Cockrem said: “The tourist operation provides an opportunity for people to see the birds and at the same time provides a wonderful research opportunity for research and conservation.”

He said he was proposing more colonies be established in New Zealand to raise awareness of the birds and suggested that establishing underpasses in other areas with large populations of little penguins could help put them on – or under – the road to recovery.