What is a little penguin? The little penguin is the smallest of the 17 penguin species and is the only one that nests along Australia's mainland coast. These flightless seabirds are superbly adapted to the marine environment. Their wings have evolved into flippers with which they propel themselves, 'flying' underwater. On land they stand upright, walking or waddling awkwardly on their hind legs. Little penguins have a life expectancy of 6 or 7 years, although some survive for 20 years. A great place to see little penguins and learn about them is the Penguin Island Discovery Centre, which is just a short ferry ride across the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park in Rockingham.
What do they look like? Little penguins are a bluish-grey colour, with a white underside and throat. They have a black bill, pale pink feet and silvery-grey eyes. The males are slightly bigger than the females, and have a deeper bill and a larger head. Adults stand about 40 centimetres tall and weigh about a kilogram.
Where do they live? The little penguin occurs along the southern coast of Australia from Fremantle to northern New South Wales. Originally, little penguins were fairly common on the Australian mainland, but these days their colonies are generally restricted to offshore islands. Penguin Island, which is surrounded by the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park, is one of the most northern places this species is found. Penguin Island also has the largest known breeding colony in Western Australia, with an estimated 1200 little penguins and 500 to 700 breeding pairs. Little penguins are also found in the proposed Ngari Capes Marine Park, which will stretch from Busselton to Augusta.
What they eat and how: The little penguin colony on Penguin Island eats more than 100 tonnes of fish every year. Little penguins can swim 8 kilometres per hour and dive as deep as 60 metres to catch pilchards, whitebait and other small fish. The birds may venture up to 200 kilometres from Penguin Island on extended feeding excursions, but while breeding they generally feed within 15 kilometres of the island. The shallow nearshore waters of Becher Point, which is just south of Penguin Island in the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park, is a very important nursery area for juvenile whitebait, the little penguin's favourite food while rearing its chicks.
Threats: In Western Australia, little penguins have declined in number since European settlement. Predation by introduced animals such as foxes, dogs and cats has had a severe impact on birds nesting on the mainland and colonies are now largely confined to offshore islands. At sea, penguins are vulnerable to hazards such as discarded plastics and fishing line, boat strikes and oil pollution, and are also taken by natural predators like sea lions and sharks. Other impacts include people trampling their nest sites, loss of suitable habitat and destabilisation of foredunes (which may prevent penguins from accessing nest sites).
Behaviour: The little penguin has up to nine different calls ranging from short, sharp barks when at sea and sharp, snorting yelps when disturbed. Little penguins are excellent swimmers and are able to spend long periods at sea but they generally spend the day at sea and return to their colonies after dark.
Breeding and caring for young: Penguin courtship is a noisy affair. The birds constantly squabble and squawk over nest sites. They usually nest in burrows and often set up their colonies in sand dune vegetation, but also shelter among rocks and in caves. Little penguins start breeding at around the age of 3 years, but those in the Shoalwater area breed earlier and for longer than those elsewhere. Little penguins lay one or more clutches of two eggs between June and September. Both parents sit on the eggs over a five week period. Two chicks often hatch, but usually only one is raised unless food is abundant. For the first 15 days of its life, one parent will remain with the young chick while the other goes in search of food. After this, the chick is left alone while both parents go fishing. Chicks leave the nest to go to sea once they reach the age of 8 or 9 weeks.
Conservation status: Little penguins are protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act. The colony of little penguins on Penguin Island has been given the highest conservation status of the 256 colonies of the little penguin around Australia.
How you can protect the little penguin: Little penguins are difficult to see in the water and spend 90% of their time in the top 2 metres of the water column. They are often victims of boat strikes so make sure you 'go slow for those below' when boating in the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park.
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