Two stationary yellow-eyed penguins standing sentinel over Sandfly Bay on Otago Peninsula have been confusing penguins, tourists and volunteers alike.
The plywood penguins are so realistic volunteers have rung the Department of Conservation concerned about their welfare, tourists have mistaken them for the real thing and penguins cuddle up to them as if one of their own.
"Penguins have walked up to them, pecked their faces or given them a whack. Tourists have gone home with photos of them," Doc ranger Mel Young says.
The decoys will be appearing on banks of beaches along Otago's coast in an effort to encourage penguins ashore and show them the way to the breeding areas.
It was an initiative used in North Otago in the 1980s and 1990s and had helped its colony go from just a few breeding pairs to 62 last season.
Last season, Ms Young was concerned penguins were only using one of the three entry points to Boulder Beach's breeding area as older, established breeders were blocking access paths.
Then, the mass mortality event reduced adult penguin numbers at many breeding sites including Sandfly Bay. Its adult population was halved.
So, Ms Young decided to try the decoys on Otago Peninsula to attract new penguins to those colonies.
She enlisted fellow staff to cut out a penguin shape from leftover plywood and paint it in a penguin's likeness, copying "Jeff" a damaged display penguin.
With the help of Dulux, a paint sponsor of Doc's, they were able to get paint to match the penguin, she said. Volunteer Gillian Cranfield was enlisted to paint their faces.
The initial decoys, which were attached to stakes, had been in place for a few months and had proven very successful, judging by the reaction of humans and penguins, Ms Young said.
"As a conservation tool they are perfect. They definitely seem to be working by the amount of poo all around them."
At Sandfly Bay, volunteers had recorded 22 penguins coming on to the beach compared with about 16 penguins which had nested there in the past.
Volunteers would help construct 40 more decoys late this month.