Fairy penguin (Photograph by Steve Johnson)
The scientific name of the fairy penguin (or little penguin) Eudyptula minor, is most descriptive. Not only is it the smallest of all penguins, but also the Greek word 'Eudyptula' means 'good little diver'. This flightless seabird breeds in colonies along the southern coast of Australia, as far north as Port Stephens in the east to Fremantle in the west. Subspecies are also found in New Zealand.
Very little is known about their populations. However, Tasmanian estimates range from 110 000–190 000 breeding pairs of which less than 5% are found on mainland Tasmania, where ever-increasing human pressure will probably result in their extinction. The most abundant populations are found on our offshore islands. Adults weigh about a kilogram, grow to a height of 40 cm and live, on average, 6 years. In one instance, an age of 21 years has been recorded.
The fairy penguin's streamlined shape and the efficient propulsion of its flippers (used underwater in a similar manner to that of birds in the air) enables it to seek prey in shallow short dives, frequently between the 10–30 m range and very occasionally extending to 60 m. Its diet varies in different locations but consists mainly of small school fish, some squid or krill (shrimp-like crustaceans). Occasionally items will be taken from the sea floor, such as crab larvae or sea horses. Prey is swallowed whole. Some fairy penguins return consistently to their burrows year round but most stay at sea throughout the autumn-winter period.
Colonies and nest sites
Most resident birds in a colony return to their burrows in small groups within an hour or so of darkness. Their return is preceded by groups of penguins gathering beyond the surf where they may be heard calling to each other. With large colonies hundreds of birds may come ashore in a brief space of time. Nests are usually at least 2 m apart and generally consist of a 60–80 cm tunnel with a nest 'bowl' at the end. Other nests may vary from mere scrapes beneath a clump of tussock, to elaborate connecting tunnels or a home amongst coastal rocks.
Little penguins can be seen at a number of locations around the State. If you intend to go penguin watching, please read the penguin viewing guidelines beforehand to ensure that you do not disturb these highly sensitive birds.
Between June and August male penguins return to either renovate old burrows or to dig new ones. Noisy male courting displays greet arriving female penguins. Although only one mate is chosen, they will usually not be their sole partner for life. Birds breed annually, but in eastern Australia the usual clutch of two eggs may be found as early as May or as late as October. In successful years, two clutches might be reared in one season, which is unusual among penguins. The penguin pair share incubation shifts of usually 1–2 days and hatching takes place within 33 - 37 days. About 60% of the eggs successfully hatch.
When 5 weeks old, the chicks stay outside burrows waiting to be fed by both parents. Within another 2 or 3 weeks they are ready to move to the sea, where they will grow to maturity.
Song and displays serve to attract mates, stave off intruders and, as a duet, unite a pair's attachment to each other. The distinctive individual song moves from a bass rumble to a trumpeting cry, accompanied by flipper, beak and body movements. These calls and displays vary in intensity from a 'half-trumpet display' to a fever pitch of sound and body activity.
At night, and especially during the breeding season, the noisy din of a penguin colony can be considerable.
Variations in food supplies caused by changes in ocean currents or other factors, determine the pattern of life for each local population of fairy penguins. In favourable years, eggs may be laid in May and up until October, with two or even three broods of chicks reared in one year.
Seasonal changes in natural food supplies from year to year cause many young birds to be washed up dead or in weak condition on our beaches. Thoughtless activities create extra problems for fairy penguins. Some are drowned when the amateur fisherman unknowingly sets gill nets near a penguin colony. Oil spills spell disaster for penguins and other sea birds. Not only is oil toxic when ingested, but also the buoyancy and insulation of penguin plumage is damaged. Plastics are mistakenly swallowed or bottle packaging becomes a noose around a penguin neck. Uncontrolled dogs or feral cats wreak havoc on penguin colonies (more than the penguin's natural predators) and may kill many individuals. The effects of human habitation, such as road kills, direct harassment, vegetation burn-off and housing development continue to threaten fairy penguin colonies.
People who visit colonies to watch them emerge from the sea after dusk can also have a negative impact. Please read our penguin viewing guidelines beforehand.
Stahel, C. & Gales, R. (1987). Little Penguins - Fairy Penguins in Australia. Uni Press, Kensington, NSW.