Little Penguins

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Little Penguins go for a walk.

Little or Fairy Penguins (Eudyptula minor) only live in Australia and New Zealand, and are found along the southern coast from Perth to Port Stephens. These little guys like rocky shorelines as these are the best sites for breeding.

They are the only penguin species to breed in Australia and the smallest penguins in the world. 

Little Penguin colonies are found in NSW, South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria and Tasmania. Some colonies like the one in Manly and the one at St Kilda in Melbourne are right in the backyard of Australia's major cities.

In recent years, penguin numbers have declined throughout much of the species range. The reasons vary from colony to colony, but always include disturbance of habitat and often killings by dogs.

The Foundation’s current effort to save the Little Penguins is a timely measure to address a national problem. Scientists in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales, have received funding to study and protect penguin populations simultaneously across their entire range.

The purchase of Penguin Backyard Buddy toys funds projects to protect the Little Penguins across Australia. Thank you to all our Backyard Buddy toy owners!

Little Penguins Demystified

The distinctive colouration of adult penguins—steel blue to black on the back, head and wings, with soft white bellies—help this species to remain camouflaged while swimming in the sea. Looking from above, the dark feathers of the penguins blend with the sea surface, and from below the light undersides are more appropriate as the sea is illuminated from above.

This is a definite advantage as Little Penguins spend the majority of the day feeding in the sea, munching on small schooling fish, squid and the occasional krill. They may be little in size, but their appetite is not. Little Penguins eat about their bodyweight’s worth of food every single day to make up to for the massive amount of energy they expend swimming for hours on end. They only feed in surface waters and do not dive down below 60m.

Little Penguins are quite vocal – often communicating with each other in the sea and on land, displaying to a potential mate and clearing up territorial disputes. Different calls are used for attracting mates, aggression, pair communication, danger/alarm, location and for other purposes. Out at sea, they often use a short, sharp, ‘quack’ to get their messages across.

Little Penguins typically return to land after dark to rest. They come onto beaches in small groups and pause briefly to take a breather before heading off to individual burrows. They build nests from April each year and the first chicks can be seen during June. It is not uncommon for adults to raise two sets of chicks, with the second pair emerging around January.

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Little Penguin chick resting on the grass. Photo: Inger Vandyke.

When the babies hatch, they are covered in black down and their eyes do not fully open until they are a week old. The black down is replaced by a chocolate brown down at two weeks of age. The babies can fend for themselves after about 57 days, and may leave the colony and not return for up to 12 months. During their time away they may travel hundreds of kilometres. And so it appears that gap years are not just for humans.

Little Penguins are hunted by natural predators such as snakes, goannas, fur seals and sea eagles. They are also the prey of many introduced species such as dogs, foxes and cats. In the wild, lucky Little Penguins can live for about seven years, though some birds in captivity have been known to live for three times as long.

Did you know? Little Penguins have a third eyelid! It protects their eyes underwater and on land. It acts like a windscreen wiper to clear sand and other irritations from their eyes.


Foundation Projects

Garden Island, Western Australia

Dr Belinda Cannell at Murdoch University suspects that Perth’s diminishing seagrass beds affect the feeding habits of the local Little Penguins. Backed with Foundation funds, one of her students will now study the bird’s diet and perhaps determine the cause of the recent decline of the colonies at Garden Island and Penguin Island. This project is funded through the Backyard Buddies adoptions in Western Australia.


Granite Island and Kangaroo Island, South Australia

In South Australia, penguin populations are declining on off-shore islands such as Granite and Kangaroo Island. The birds on the islands are relatively safe from predators, so falling numbers indicate that something is wrong with their ocean habitat. Scientists fear that the loss of feeding habitat such as seagrass beds is to blame. To find out if this is the case, the Foundation funds a PhD student to fit Little Penguins with satellite trackers and study their movements at sea in search of food. It also funds the purchase of tracking devices and batteries. This project is funded through Backyard Buddies adoptions in South Australia and through funds from AGA International (a German company that stands for Community Biodiversity Action).

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Phillip Island, Victoria

Phillip Island's penguin parade is world famous and the local colony without a doubt the best known in Australia. While tourists from around the world flock to beaches every night to get a glimpse at these shy birds, volunteers at the Penguin Foundation keep an even closer eye on the penguins to ensure the health and wellbeing of the population. The Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife supported the Penguin Foundation with a grant to satellite track the birds while they are at sea. This will help the volunteers learn more about the movements of the penguins and ultimately allow for better protection of their habitat and feeding grounds. This project is funded through Backyard Buddies adoptions in Victoria.

St Kilda's penguins by comparison are a well kept secret. They established a breeding colony so close to Melbourne's doorstep that Earthcare Volunteers keep a watchful eye not only on the penguins but also on their human neighbours. Earthcare also received a grant from the Foundation to microchip their penguins to monitor closely the survival rate and breeding success of the individual birds. This project is funded through Backyard Buddies adoptions in Victoria.


Derwent Estuary, Tasmania

From Tasmania comes a success story that encourages penguin experts Australia wide. Over the past years, Drew Lee from the Department of Primary Industries and Water has restored the penguin habitat in the Derwent Estuary and turned a declining population into a flourishing one. The Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife is now providing Drew with a burrowscope to monitor the breeding success of his Little Penguins. This optical device allows him to peek into the penguin burrows and get a clear view of the chicks without disturbing the birds. This project is funded through Backyard Buddies adoptions in Tasmania.

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Sydney Harbour, New South Wales

The Manly colony of Little Penguins in Sydney Harbour is the only mainland colony left in NSW. All other colonies are restricted to offshore islands due to predators.

Breeding season is the time of year when the birds are most vulnerable. At Manly, volunteer Penguin Wardens watch over the colony from July to January. Every night from 6 to 12 PM, the volunteers safeguard the colony and answer questions from the local community. They are ambassadors for the endangered Little Penguins of Manly, Sydney Harbour. They help with monitoring of the endangered colony and provide members of the public with accurate information about the penguins, their habitat and their needs. The Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife provides funds to support the Manly Penguin Wardens, and also funds monitoring of the population and the installation of artificial nest boxes for the Manly Little Penguin colony.

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Brush Island, New South Wales

On Brush Island in New South Wales the Little Penguins are enjoying their first safe breeding season for decades. A Foundation grant paid for the eradication of introduced black rats that used to eat both the penguin’s eggs and chicks. The removal of the rats turned this island into another safe breeding ground.

 
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