Little Penguin

Quick Facts

Length: -
Height: 33 cm
Weight: -
Colour: -
Habitat: Temperate seas around the southern coast of Australia, Tasmania and some offshore islands
Food: Fish and cephalopods and occasionally crustaceans
Predators: Feral animals and dogs
Status: Not Present in the NT. Secure in all other states and territories in Australia
Little Penguin
Little Penguin

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. Young penguins are bluer than adults. The Little Penguin is also known as the Fairy Penguin because of its small size. The Little Penguin is the world's smallest penguin.

Little Penguins live along the southern edge of mainland Australia as well as Tasmania and Kangaroo Island and Granite Island just off South Australia.

Little Penguins occur in temperate seas with water temperatures between 13 degrees C and 20 degrees 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 km - 20 km per day when foraging, covering shorter distances when breeding. A foraging bird can dive from 6 m - 69 m (average about 30 m), 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.

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.

Little Penguins are threatened by a range of human-related activities. Colonies of Little Penguins have declined or disappeared in breeding areas altered by grazing or erosion. Other threats include oil pollution, discarded plastic products and fire. Feral animals are a considerable threat. For example rabbits have changed island habitats until these are unsuitable for penguins and predators, particularly dogs, kill many birds. In some areas, penguins are still deliberately killed for bait. The Australian population is estimated at less than 1 000 000 birds.

Author: Rosalyn Plunkett
Last Updated: Thursday 9th January, 2014
BirdLife Australia -


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