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Little Fairy Penguins Phillip Island

Little Penguins, or Fairy penguins

The Little Penguin is the smallest of the world’s 17 penguin species and is the only species to breed on the Australian mainland. It stands approximately 33cm in height and weighs approximately 1kg.

The little Penguin “flies” underwater with a wing stroke that resembles aerial flight but uses muscular force in both the up and down stroke. The penguin’s body is streamlined and shaped like a torpedo and when swimming the short legs are stretched backwards to minimise drag. The legs are not used for propulsion, but in conjunction with the tail act as rudders and are also used for braking purposes.

The Little Penguin’s feathers are small and are spread all over the body at four times the density of flying birds. The structure and interlocking of the feathers traps a layer of insulating air against the skin, keeping the penguin warm in the icy waters off the Southern Australian coast.

A lot of the penguin’s time is spent preening and oiling the feathers to keep them waterproof. To do this the penguins use their beak to smear a waxy substance over their plumage. This liquid wax is secreted from a gland at the base of the tail.

A day in the life of the Little Penguin

About an hour before sunrise the penguin leaves its burrow and heads out to sea. The penguin spends the day swimming around looking for food, feeding on pilchards, anchovies and sprats.

Generally the penguins are shallow divers, looking for food in the top ten metres of the ocean, however, they have been recorded diving as deep as 60 metres.

The fairy penguin may swim up to 100 km in a day in order to catch the 240 grams of fish they require to maintain body weight. They may stay out to sea for some weeks at a time, depending upon the availability of food sources. Penguins have been identified as far as 1000km from their home base.

In the late afternoon, the penguins return to the waters near Phillip island and gather in groups called “rafts”. At dusk, the raft moves closer to the beach and breaks up into smaller groups before coming ashore.

Penguins usually land in the same place every night and take the same path, pausing to preen their feathers and rest for a while before making their way to their burrow.

Penguin chicks

Little penguin chicks leave the colony and begin a life of their own at about 8 weeks of age when they are the same size as their parents. They are not taught to swim, but learn by instinct.

Prior to leaving the colony, the penguins are fitted with identification tags and are weighed by rangers so that their health and movements- individually and collectively – may be continually monitored. The Little Penguin’s life expectancy is about 7 years, although the oldest known bird was 24 years of age.

We bet you didn’t know…
Religious pragmatists in a far-away country, at a far-away time, debating whether to classify penguins as fish or fowl, were unanimous in calling them fish – because they could then be eaten on Fridays!

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