Houses go fast on Dyer Island. Not 15 minutes after Wilfred Chivell finished the final touches on one recently installed structure – covering it with dirt, making sure the opening was clear – a couple had made themselves at home. Such is the demand on this flat, rocky island, once home to the largest colony of African penguins in the world.
"These penguins were just dying for shelter," says Mr. Chivell, a conservationist and tour-boat operator who helped launch this avian housing project – one of the more novel and promising attempts to help southern Africa's endangered penguins.
He and others are installing small, fiberglass igloos on Dyer Island, a jagged square mile that still is home to some 4,000 penguins. Their hope is to make up for the manmade habitat destruction that has forced the birds to nest in the open, a practice that makes their eggs and chicks vulnerable to predatory gulls. The conservationists have installed 200 artificial nests so far, and eventually want to put 2,000 in place, enough to protect every penguin pair. If the program is successful, they plan to expand it to other colonies in South Africa.
"The penguins occupy those burrows like greased lightning," says Les Underhill, a professor of avian demography at the University of Cape Town. "Anything that provides shelter is better than an open nest. You can feel quite moved for these poor birds who really are struggling."
Years ago, the African penguins (once known as "jackass penguins" for their vocalizations) burrowed their nests in guano, nutrient-rich bird droppings piled meters thick on the small seabird islands that speckle the water where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. The dried guano offered shade that kept them from overheating, and protected their eggs from predators.
But by the end of the last century, people had scraped away all the guano to sell as fertilizer, and the penguins had to nest directly on island rock. Without shade, the birds overheat, and must periodically leave their nests to cool off in the ocean. That made chicks and eggs vulnerable to kelp gulls, which also live on the islands.
To make matters worse for the penguins, the gull population has skyrocketed in recent years, largely because so much food is available from community rubbish dumps, Underhill says. Add to this oil spills, overfishing, and a shift in the swimming patterns of anchovies – one of the penguins' main food sources – and the penguins simply have been overmatched, he says.
Across the region, the number of African penguins has dropped from about 1.5 million adults in 1930 to 153,000 in the 1990s. On Dyer Island, the penguin population fell from a peak of 22,655 pairs in 1979 to about 2,000 pairs today.
Chivell says that he didn't realize how bad the problem had gotten until he visited the island in the late 1990s. The island is run by Cape Nature, the South African government's conservation body, and was designated by BirdLife International as a worldwide "Important Bird Area" for its large concentration of gulls, terns, and oystercatchers. From the water, the island looks pancake flat, with hundreds of birds perched along the rocky outcroppings.
Few people can visit Dyer Island, which is about three miles offshore. It is off-limits to anyone but researchers, and most scientists are barred during sensitive nesting times. But because of his local conservation work, Chivell says, he got a tour.
"I just saw that the penguins needed some shelter," he says. He started planning the building project, but says it took years for the various governmental and research bodies to coordinate, and to agree to let a private citizen get involved with such an ecologically sensitive place.
In March, Chivell and Cape Nature launched the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and the related "Faces of Need" campaign. They advertised that people could "buy" a penguin house for about $50, and started raising public awareness about the penguins. Within weeks, hundreds of the igloos had sold.
"People are so wonderful," says Claudine O'Connor, who works for Chivell on the Faces of Need campaign. "I think people really didn't realize how bad it was. Now, we've had such a wonderful response."
Habitat destruction is one of the biggest problems for species worldwide, points out Lauren Waller, a nature conservationist with Cape Nature, who is working with the penguin project. There have been other attempts to create artificial nests or covers for endangered birds, she says, but few efforts in the region have been on this scale.
"The uniqueness in this project is the magnitude," she says. "It's quite a huge project, and we want to roll it out to other islands."
The artificial nests are about three feet long and 18 inches high, modeled on the birds' natural burrows. To install them, conservationists dig into the rock and gravel, place the nest into the earth, and then cover it up so only a little bit of the opening shows.
"It's real rocky, so instead of using shovels, you have to use a pickax and your hands," says Dylan Suhor, a young research assistant who helped install nests last month. He says it took about a dozen people seven hours to install 40 igloos.
As researchers install the nests, Ms. Waller is monitoring the penguins' dwelling preferences. She notes if they are more attracted to certain floor plans – say, a north- facing semicircle – or certain distances between burrows. Researchers will also see whether pairs return to the same houses each year, or whether breeding patterns change.
"We've laid out nests in different designs, different densities," she says. "And we'll have an ongoing monitoring program to look at all this."
So far, Walker says, the penguins seem to be happy with anything.
"They check out the nests right away," she says. "You can see the footprints. They have certainly taken to [them]."
Underhill, the professor, says researchers hope to gather enough information to export the program to other seabird islands. For instance, Cape Town's Robben Island, well known as the site of the prison that housed Nelson Mandela, has a large penguin population that also needs shelters.
"It's a species that needs all the help it can get," Underhill says. So far, the Dyer Island Conservation Trust has sold 600 nests. They plan to install more after the nesting season ends.
• For more information on the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org