At 40-45cm tall and weighing 1kg, the Little Penguin is the smallest penguin in the world and internationally famous thanks to Phillip Island’s penguin parade.
Like all penguins, the Little Penguin is highly adapted for life in the sea. Its body is streamlined, its wings are modified as flippers and its feathers are densely distributed over its body. The upper parts, including the back of the Little Penguin are distinctly blue, which explains one of its alternative names, Blue Penguin, and the underbelly is white. Its bill is grey-black with a pinkish lower base, and its iris pale grey to white. One New Zealand population has broad white borders to the flippers, and considered by some as a separate species. Young penguins are bluer than adults. The Little Penguin is also known as the Fairy Penguin because of its small size.
On land at night, Little Penguins are noisy, particularly before and during breeding. They also call intermittently at sea, their yapping sounding like a small dog.
Little Penguins live along the southern edge of mainland Australia, as well as Tasmania, New Zealand and the Chatham Islands.
Island, Marine, Coastal
Little Penguins occur in temperate seas with water temperatures between 13°C and 20°C. Within this region, the Little Penguin feeds mainly in inshore waters around the coast and breeding islands, and out to the continental shelf. Most breeding pairs live in colonies, although some nest on their own. Colonies are usually found on islands, with only scattered locations known on the mainland.
Adult Little Penguins are largely sedentary, returning to the colony when not at sea.
Adult penguins forage for food at sea, mostly from dawn to an hour before dusk. Little Penguins swim with their flippers and use their tail for guidance. They feed on small shoaling fish and cephalopods, and to a lesser extent, crustaceans, which they capture and swallow underwater. Although several birds may pursue the same shoal, they feed singly, not cooperatively. Adult penguins may travel 14-20 km per day when foraging, covering shorter distances when breeding.
A foraging bird can dive from 6-69 m (average about 30m), with a sprint speed of 1.5 m/s-2 m/s, and remain submerged for over a minute. After feeding, Little Penguins approach the colony in tight groups, remaining offshore until dusk. At dusk they come ashore, cross the beach, and head to their own burrows. This is the famous ‘penguin parade’ that visitors enjoy on Phillip Island, Victoria.
Males search for mates by advertising outside the nesting area. After pairing, calling continues at the nest site to maintain the pair bond. During courtship, both birds stand erect, with flippers spread and head bowed, and walk in tight circles around the nest site, calling loudly as they go. Little Penguins form a long-term monogamous pair bond with a separation rate of about 18%. A bird will first breed when it is two to three years old. The breeding season varies in different parts of the country:
Burrows are dug by both parents (mainly the male) to a depth of 0.15 m, with an average of just over 0.4 m. The burrow can be as far as 200 m inland and 50 m above sea level. Dunes or other soft soil are usually chosen because they are easy to dig. In some localities, a pair may use a cave or crevice in the rocks. A penguin tends to return to the same part of the same colony each year, although not necessarily to the same burrow. Both parents contribute to nest building but the majority is done by the male. The nest may vary from a thick mat of grass to a few strands, usually collected within a few metres of the burrow entrance.
The parents defend a small area around the burrow entrance. As a result, burrows are usually spaced 5 m – 10 m apart, and rarely closer than 2 m. Aggressive encounters range from posturing and calling, to fights involving pecking, shoving and slapping with flippers. Young birds wandering out of their parents’ territory will be attacked by other adults.
Both parents incubate the 55 mm x 42 mm white eggs, which become stained as incubation progresses. Although there are about 68 hours between the laying of the first and second egg, both hatch together. A newly hatched chick is covered with dark grey down, which is soon replaced by a second coat, chocolate brown in colour. Their eyes are just open at one day and are fully open at one week. Feathers start to emerge at four weeks, and by eight weeks, only a few patches of down remain.
Tending of the young is shared by the parents. Just a few days after the chicks hatch, the adults alternate daily, with one parent guarding the nest and the other foraging at sea. After about two weeks, both parents go to sea each day, returning in the evening or even staying away for several days. Hungry chicks beg vigorously to be fed, pursuing their parents until their persistence drives the adults from the nest.
Island, Marine, Coastal