The Little Penguin is the smallest of all penguin species, weighing around 1kg and reaching about 30cm tall. It is the only penguin with slate-blue back feathers and flippers, which is why they are often known as the ‘little blue penguin’. The underside is white, the eyes are silver and the bill is black.
Little Penguins are noisy communicators, producing a variety of distinctive snorts, screeches, brays and growls depending on their activity.
The Little Penguin is the only species of penguin native to Australia. Although all penguin species are native to the southern hemisphere, only a few are found in cold climates such as Antarctica. In fact, one species, the Galapagos Penguin, is found near the equator.
Distribution & Habitat
The Little Penguin is the only penguin species occurring on mainland Australia. The largest population is in Bass Strait and their inability to cope with land temperatures above 35C limits their range to as far north as South Solitary Island off Coffs Harbour. A colony of fewer than 60 breading pairs in Manly, Sydney, is possibly the only remaining mainland Little Penguin colony in NSW.
Little Penguins usually nest in burrows in the sand dunes that are 60 to 80cm long. But they will also nest in rock piles, caves and even under buildings, as do the population around Manly.
Little Penguins mate for life. A breeding pair will return to their burrow between June and August and build their nest in September. Two eggs are usually laid around October and they hatch 33 to 37 days later. Parents share incubation duties and feeding and guarding duties once hatched, until the chicks are able to keep themselves warm. Despite the intensive parental care given to the chicks, it is rare for both to survive if food is scarce. Chicks leave the nest when they are fully fledged at 7 to 9 weeks and head to the ocean to mature. They can live for up to 21 years but more often survive for 6.5 years.
After breeding the adult Little Penguins prepare to moult by feeding intensively. The penguins rely on their fat stores to survive during this two to three week period when they cannot enter the water to feed. By the time the penguin’s feathers have been replaced it may have lost up to half of its body weight.
Anchovies, Pilchards and other small schooling fish appear to be the preferred diet of the Little Penguin, as is squid and less frequently, Krill. They consume around one third of their body weight each day.
Unlike Antarctic Penguin species, the Little Penguin is not a social animal, but breeding pairs are often found in nearby nests during the breeding season.
They usually only travel between 10 and 30km from their breeding area to feed, although young birds have been spotted hundreds of kilometres away.
Swimming is energetically efficient for Little Penguins due to their streamlined body. They swim at speeds of between 4.0 and 8.5km/h.
While relatively common in the southern waters of Australia, the Little Penguin has shown declines in NSW and all mainland colonies in this state have become extinct apart from the Manly colony in Sydney Harbour. This colony was listed as endangered in 1997 with an estimated 35 birds at Manly Point remaining at the time.
It is believed that the number of Little Penguins in Sydney Harbour was once high. However, a shooting spree killed 300 Little Penguins in 1954 and tar contamination in a local creek killed 100 more in 1956 and the colony has never recovered. Today’s threats include dog, fox and cat attacks, disturbance at nest sites and boating incidents, fishing line entanglement and habitat loss. In 2009, 10 Little Penguins were killed by domestic dogs and possibly a fox in a period of six weeks.
The current population is approximately 65 breeding pairs thanks to concerted Recovery Team efforts, such as monitoring programs, community awareness, breeding, rescue and rehabilitation, bush regeneration, pest control and surveys by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Manly Environment Centre and Taronga Zoo.
Taronga’s Conservation Work
The Taronga Wildlife Hospital treats around 35 sick and injured Little Penguins each year. Many are from the Manly colony and are returned to the colony after rehabilitation.
Taronga Zoo also runs an award winning community conservation program each year called Project Penguin. Hundreds of school children from the Manly area join the Little Penguin recovery team by learning from the experts themselves and designing awareness and action campaigns that encourage the Manly community to help protect their penguins.