I Am The Smallest

It is late afternoon and driving south from Melbourne for almost 2 hours, Delia and Brian are heading towards Phillip Island, which is my home.

WHO AM I?

With more than 30,000 of my colleagues I live on the island’s Summerland Peninsula. Several hundred visitors will be joining us this evening.

I have several different names. Some call me “Fairy penguin”. Others call me “Blue penguin” or “Little blue penguin”. We are the smallest of the 17 or 18 different species of penguins in the world.

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Blue Fairy Penguin

When I am fully grown, I will not be taller than 15” (35 cm), and will not weigh more than 3lb (1.2 kgs). I am not certain what I would do if I met my big cousin the Emperor Penguin, as he grows to more than 42” (110 cm) and can weigh more than 60lb (30 kg). He is a real giant!

We are the only penguins that have both blue and white plumage. This is very important for us because it helps protect us when we are swimming. Predatory birds find it difficult to see us because we are the same color as the sea around us, while the white feathers on my chest make it difficult for marine predators to see me from below.

Our species live around the southern states of Australia and all around the New Zealand coast. On occasions some of us get lost at sea and have been found far away from home on the coast of Chile. We like the cold water, and we have lots of feathers to help insulate us, in fact we have about 10,000 of these feathers. Each year we have to grow new feathers to replace those that have become too old or worn.

Rehabilitation Jumper
Molting

This molting process takes between two and three weeks. As we are unable to go to sea without a full covering of feathers, we have to eat a lot before that process begins. I have really become quite fat and have doubled my weight before molting begins. I am anxious to get back in the water to try out my new set of feathers. They are so good that my skin never gets wet.

I have very good sight, and with three eyelids I can see well underwater. I believe humans have two eyelids, so like you I have a top and bottom eyelid.

Swimming Penguin
Streamline Swimmer

In addition, I have a third eyelid, a clear membrane which is like a pair of goggles when I am down there chasing fish. While I do not dive as deep as some other penguins, I can make hundreds of dives in one day. I eat a variety of marine life – young fish, sardines, anchovies, pilchards, squid and sea jellies.. While I cannot move very quickly on land, I can swim quite fast, and while you can walk more quickly than I can, I can swim faster.

I spend about 80% of my time at sea, sometimes staying at sea for weeks at a time. However, around May or June of each year I come ashore to Phillip Island to prepare a burrow in the sand, and try to entice a mate to share it with me. If I am successful, she will lay two fertilized eggs in that burrow. I have to choose our nesting site carefully and prefer a sandy site under rocks or bushes. Protection from feral cats, dogs, snakes and foxes is very important, so I try to hide our burrow. 

The Fairy Penguin Chick

We will share the duties of incubating those eggs which should hatch after about 35 days. One of us will stay with the chicks until they are about 3-4 weeks old. At that stage we may both leave them and spend the day fishing.

THE PENGUIN PARADE.

This is the main event that brings all of those tourists to our home. They sit on bleachers on the beach waiting for dusk, which is the time when we come ashore.

We do not wish to come ashore until then because at that time it is very difficult for predatory birds to see us.

The Penguin Parade

We have been at sea for many hours and our crops are usually full of fish, which has been kept in temporary storage until we return home to our chicks. When it is dusk and we are ready to come ashore we wait until there is a big group of us and we come ashore together.  I guess we believe there is safety in numbers. Out of the water we make our way towards our burrows to feed our chicks.  We really don’t walk in the way humans do, as we are a different shape. We have a very low center of gravity and our legs do not have knees like you do.

The Waddle

On land we lean forward and rock side to side. I guess we waddle rather than walk. On land we cannot walk as fast as you can, but out at sea it is a different matter. We can probably swim faster than you.

As we make our way to our burrow to feed our chicks, we are often harassed by chicks other than our own. All of them are hungry and if they can manage to get some extra food from us, they will be less hungry, and probably happy. When we find our chicks, they are very happy to eat the delicacies we have brought them.

About 8 weeks after they have hatched our chicks leave us and go to sea. They have to now find their own food and look after themselves. Our chicks are very smart. We do not have to teach them how to swim or how to catch fish. They instinctively know what to do. Now they are on their own and will swim much further away from Phillip Island than we adult penguins do. After about one year they will come back to our colony. When they are about two years old, they will pair up and begin breeding.

Well, that is my story. I hope that my friend Brian will tell you a little more about our life here on Phillip Island.

Thank you, Flipper for sharing all of that information with us. Now I know a lot more about Fairy Penguins than I did when I drove south from Melbourne. There were about 300 of us observing you and your cousins waddling out of the sea and making your way back to the burrows. The noise was incredible with a great variety of yelps, some sharp and some more like a growl, as you were ‘attacked’ by chicks eager to get some food. Some of those chicks were quite aggressive trying to get fish from somebody else’s parent. You had to very determined to fight your way back to your own burrow with your crop still full of the food necessary for your two chicks. What a battle!

Flipper mentioned how carefully they have to choose the location for their burrows in an effort to protect themselves for predators. I guess that some of us humans could, in a sense, become “predators” by behaving inappropriately when we are close to our friendly little penguins. Bright lights, including flash photography could become very disorienting for you. Some of our other behaviors could also, unintentionally create problems for you.

Dressed Up
A Fashionable Penguin

Oil spills can be fatal for a great variety of marine life, certainly including Flipper and his friends. In the last major oil spill, more than 430 of the colony were badly affected by oil and were being treated at the Phillip Island Wildlife Clinic. As penguins covered in oil can exacerbate the problem by ingesting oil when they try to clean their plumage with their beaks, the Clinic has an intriguing solution to that problem. The jumper protects the penguin until the oil can be cleaned from his feathers.

Delia and I really enjoyed our all-to-brief time on Phillip Island. We would encourage all of our readers to learn more about these wonderful little marine animals. You can find a great deal of information online at the following sites penguinfoundation.org.au, perguins.org.au, and penguinsworld.org. These websites provide a wealth of information about our little feathered friends. They also carry out important research to help us better understand how we can help in safeguarding their habitat. To do this they need funding and appreciate all assistance.

Peguin Parade
Penguin Toys

You can help support this important work by purchasing one or more of these cute toys at the Penguin Parade.

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