The little penguin has the plainest, least distinctive plumage of all the penguin species but may have been the first one to evolve from flying birds. Birders who learn more about these tiny penguins can better appreciate their uniqueness, even if the birds don't show it in appearance.
Common Name: Little Penguin, Blue Penguin, Little Blue Penguin, Fairy Penguin, Korora Penguin, White-Flippered Penguin, Australian Penguin
Scientific Name: Eudyptula minor
Scientific Family: Spheniscidae
Appearance and Identification
These penguins may seem plain, but it is that plainness that helps them be identified more easily. By recognizing just a few key features, birders can feel confident when they have seen a little penguin.
- Bill: Thick, black, slightly hooked tip, paler underside
- Size: 13-15 inches long with 11-14-inch wingspan, chunky build, short tail
- Colors: Blue-black, gray, white, brown, black, pink
- Markings: Genders are similar though males tend to be slightly larger and heavier than females. These penguins have countershaded plumage with slate blue-gray or blue-black coloration above and white or grayish-white underparts. The face may show a paler cheek patch, and the underparts may be stained with dirt from these penguins' habit of hiding under bushes and nesting in borrows. The flippers are slightly darker and may show a thin white edge on each side, which can make the flippers look narrower. The eyes are gray-black or blue-gray, and the legs and feet range from pink to pinkish-white with gray soles and black talons. Juveniles look similar to adults but generally show more gray on the underparts and the upperparts may be slightly paler. Young birds also have smaller bills.
Foods, Diet, and Foraging
Habitat and Migration
These penguins spend much of their time at sea during the day, and at night prefer rocky shores or scrub habitats, including forest edges near coastlines. They can be found on either sandy beaches or in areas of rocky scree, as long as there is sufficient cover to help them feel secure.
Little penguins are found along the southern and southeastern coasts of Australia, as well as along coastal Tazmania and New Zealand. These birds do not migrate, but vagrant sightings are occasionally reported in South Africa and Chile, presumably after these birds may have been forced far from their range by storms.
The smallest of the penguin species has the loudest voice and biggest vocabulary, with a variety of brays, barks, croons, grunts, and beeps in their repertoire. Adults can be quite noisy, but chicks generally only use a high-pitched beeping call to attract attention and encourage more feeding.
These penguins are often characterized as nocturnal, but in fact, they are active throughout the day at sea as they forage. Sightings are only common in twilight hours, however, as these penguins are very predictable when leaving and returning to their nesting sites and roosting areas, making late evening or nighttime sightings more frequent.
Little penguins are somewhat gregarious and are often seen in groups. As smaller birds, their dives are generally shallow, typically less than 60 feet deep, though dives up to 100 feet deep have been recorded.
On land, these penguins are very wary of humans and predators and quickly run between spots of cover before resting. They can be aggressive with one another, however, and will engage in pushing and shoving contests as well as pecking at one another to establish dominance.
These are monogamous penguins that mate after courtship displays where the male points his bill toward the sky and shakes his flippers as he calls to attract a female's attention. The male also digs the underground burrow nest, lining it with leaves and similar debris. Nest openings are usually positioned under thick grass roots or otherwise under cover, and these birds will also nest in rock crevices, caves, or nesting boxes that are suitably dark and sheltered. Nests are often reused for several years, and these colonial birds will nest in close proximity to one another.
A typical nest has two eggs, and both parents share incubation duties in shifts as one parent goes to sea to forage while the other cares for the eggs. The incubation period is 30-40 days, and after the young penguins hatch, both parents continue to care for the chicks for several weeks until the juveniles are more independent.
While these penguins only raise one brood each year, a mated pair may try to start a second or even a third nest if earlier nests fail or chicks die. These birds begin breeding when they are 2-3 years old and may mate for life, though divorces will happen if breeding is unsuccessful.
Attracting Little Penguins
These birds are not backyard species, but they adapt well to captivity and can be seen in zoos and aquariums around the world. Birders who want to add little penguins to their life lists can investigate tour opportunities that include nightly "parade" spectacles where little penguins nest and roost, providing a supervised viewing of wild penguins while minimizing stress to the birds.
Only the white-flippered subspecies of these penguins is considered endangered. All little penguins are protected by a variety of legislation, not only as native wildlife but also because of their cultural and spiritual significance to Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. Invasive predators can be particularly devastating to little penguin colonies, and dogs, cats, foxes, and ferrets have all had a heavy toll on these birds in the past. Climate change that alters populations of suitable prey fish can cause problems for little penguins, and these birds are also at great risk from oil spills and pollution. Where nesting colonies are near suburban areas, little penguins are also threatened by vehicle collisions.
- Yellow-Eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes)
- Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica)
- Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua)
- Razorbill (Alca torda)