Penguins are living surrounded by plastic rubbish they collect from the polluted seas of Wellington and Auckland.
University of Auckland seabird ecology PHD candidate Spencer McIntyre says he regularly pulls plastic pieces, cutlery, and fishing equipment out of little blue penguin burrows.
He's found an unopened package of sponges which penguins had managed to carry back to their nest.
"It's sad and it's a bit heartbreaking to see that we're impacting them," McIntyre said.
"Those could be things that I've bought that are in that burrow."
The amount of plastic they were uncovering was disappointing, but not all that surprising, he said.
"Thinking that they will be totally immune from the impacts of the major city is just not realistic."
McIntyre's current study compares the health of birds that live close to the city compared to the birds that are far away.
The most harmful items commonly came from the fishing industry.
He's pulled plastic out of nests in Tiritiri Matangi and Mokohinau Islands.
"It's pretty normal that everywhere we go we're going to see plastic pollution."
McIntyre said he didn't want to blame a source for the plastic, but there tended to be more plastic getting into the burrows closer to Auckland city.
Penguins liked to play with plastic cutlery and straws too and, if swallowed, could cause digestive and hormone issues.
"If they eat a plastic knife or a plastic fork, or if they get tangled in a fishing line, that's an immediate effect."
If swallowed, plastic could also affect their ability to eat food.
In one instance, McIntyre pulled plastic out of the same burrow on three separate visits to the penguins.
Forest and Bird Places for Penguins spokeswoman Karin Wiley, who has worked in bird rehabilitation for 15 years, said plastic was commonly found in penguin burrows around the capital and it was getting worse.
Penguins dragged it in to their nests or it would blow in, Wiley said.
Plastic had been found tangled around penguin legs, and could be regurgitated to the penguin chicks, she said.
"When penguins died, we'd do autopsys on them and we'd find massive amounts of plastic in their guts."
She'd had to see penguins euthanised due to plastic being caught around their legs and cutting of circulation.
The majority of plastic was already at sea, she said.
"It's mostly out there flowing around in the currents. Picking it up off the beach is very much the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff."
Little penguin nests are made close to the sea, usually in caves or rock crevices, under logs or in or under a variety of man-made structures including nest boxes, pipes, stacks of wood or timber, and buildings.
Pairs are loyal to their nesting sites and usually return there each year.
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