Here Come Little Penguins on Parade!


THE crowd is hushed and expectant. Watchful eyes peer into the distance for a first glimpse of the star performers. The floodlit scene comes to life when suddenly a tiny figure pops into view at the water’s edge. A murmur of excitement ripples through the crowd as another and then another join him. The nightly show has begun. Here come Phillip Island’s little penguins on parade! *

Penguins first marched onto the world stage when the famous explorers Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan sailed the great southern oceans in the 16th century. At first, men wondered just how to classify the penguin. It had feathers like a bird, it swam like a fish, and it walked on land like a beast. It was the feathers, finally, that settled the matter. Only birds have feathers​—so a bird this must be. Ranging from the stately emperor and the Adélie penguins of Antarctica to the equatorial Galápagos penguin, 18 different species make up this family of flightless birds.

Would you like to visit a colony of penguins in their natural habitat? Then come to Phillip Island​—just 90 miles [140 km] southeast of the modern city of Melbourne, Australia. Some 500,000 visitors stream through here each year to be charmed by this miniature marvel. What makes the little penguins of Phillip Island so lovable?

“Cute, yet Feisty”

Dressed in their formal-looking black-and-white plumage, little penguins quickly win over those who see them. Standing some 13 inches [33 cm] tall and weighing a mere two pounds [1 kg], they are the smallest of the world’s penguin species. But do not be fooled! What they lack in size they more than make up for in tenacity and endurance.

“Little penguins are cute, yet feisty,” explains Professor Mike Cullen, who has studied penguins at the Phillip Island colony for over 20 years. These smallest of penguins are also the most vocal. At night the colony resounds with growls, squawks, brays, and screeches as penguins defend their nests against trespassers, advertise for a mate, or enjoy “choir practice” with their partners.

When first described in 1780, little penguins were aptly dubbed Eudyptula minor, from the Greek, meaning “good little diver.” With their streamlined, torpedo-shaped bodies, sleek waterproof plumage, and flipperlike wings, they seem literally to fly through the water.

A Perfect “Life Jacket”

In their quest for food, these penguins may swim up to 50 miles [100 km] a day, staying at sea for days or weeks at a  time if necessary. How do they sleep at sea? The answer lies in their remarkably designed plumage. Penguins have a thick coat of down and interlocking feathers, three to four times denser than that of flying birds. Air trapped under this coat insulates the bird and gives it natural buoyancy​—much like a life jacket. Thus, a penguin can easily sleep at sea, bobbing up and down like a cork, flippers outstretched as stabilizers, its beak resting safely above the surface of the water.

Of course, even the penguin’s thick coat would be no protection if it were soaked through with the chilling waters in which the bird searches for food. No problem for the penguin​—a special oil gland above the bird’s tail secretes liquid waxes. The penguin preens, using its bill to spread these waxes through its feathers, keeping them waterproof, clean, and healthy. No scuba diver could have a suit better designed to cope with life at sea.

Does the lack of fresh water at sea pose any difficulty for this ocean-going creature? Two uniquely constructed glands, located just above each eye, desalinate the seawater. With a simple shake of the beak, the penguin expels the unwanted salt from each nostril.

Additionally, penguins have eyes specially designed to see as well under the water as they do above it. Clearly, this creature is perfectly equipped for its aquatic life. But fortunately for us, little penguins do not spend all their time at sea.

Their Link to Land

Phillip Island and the nearby mainland have a rugged, sandy coastline covered with dense grass and foliage. This makes an ideal habitat for the colony of 26,000 little penguins. Life begins in a nest laboriously burrowed by the parents in a coastal sand dune. A newly laid egg may remain cold, yet viable, for several days before both parents conscientiously take turns at incubation duty. Breeding birds have a special brood patch, rich in blood vessels, on the lower portion of their abdomen. When incubating an egg, this patch becomes swollen with warm blood, thus transmitting the heat essential for the egg to develop. Between incubation shifts the patch subsides, allowing the feathers to resume their waterproofing action and permitting the adult to return to the sea to feed.

Once hatched, a chick grows at a phenomenal pace. In just eight to ten weeks, the young penguin is the size of an adult and ready for the sea. “It is remarkable that young penguins set out for extended trips at sea armed with no more than a superb set of physiological  equipment . . . and a battery of instincts with which to survive,” observes the book Little Penguin​—Fairy Penguins in Australia.

Over the next one to three years, fledgling penguins may range thousands of miles, spending much of their time at sea. Those who survive usually return to their home colony to breed​—within 2,000 feet [500 m] of their birthplace. How do they know their way home? Some claim that penguins navigate by the sun, using a built-in biological clock that compensates for the sun’s movement across the sky. Others believe that penguins recognize familiar geographical landmarks. At any rate, the spectacle of these mariners returning to land after a long voyage or after a hard day of fishing is what draws crowds to Phillip Island.

Let the Parade Begin!

As dusk settles, hundreds of excited visitors take their places, ready to view the nightly penguin parade. The penguins have long since congregated offshore beyond the breaking surf in large groups, or rafts, made up of hundreds of birds. The beach is illuminated by several floodlights. A light breeze stirs, and small waves lap the shoreline. Doubts ripple through the audience. Where are the penguins? Will they come ashore? Just then, the first little penguins appear and shuffle nervously at the water’s edge. Suddenly startled, they vanish into the surf. Mindful of exposure to predators, such as eagles, the penguins keep on high alert. Soon they reappear and gradually gather confidence. Finally, one bold penguin steps from the water and waddles smartly across the beach toward the shelter of the dunes. The others in its group are quick to follow. Ignoring the lights and onlookers, they march up the beach, giving the impression of a lively parade.

Upon reaching the safety of the dunes, the penguins visibly relax and gather in larger groups to preen their feathers. Group after group crosses the beach in this manner, pausing to mingle and “chat” with neighbors before wandering home. For some this means a stiff walk, hop, and scramble up a sloping 200-foot [50 m] cliff before reaching their burrows.

Little Penguins​—Big Questions

As with other creatures around the world, little penguins face numerous challenges, many of these related to man. Threats include oil discharges from passing ships, habitat reduction through human activities, and introduced predators, such as foxes and domestic pets.

Commendable efforts have been made to address these issues. In recent years the number of little penguins in the Phillip Island Penguin Reserve has stabilized. “We are winning the battle . . . but slowly,” reflects Professor Cullen. He adds: “The greatest challenge we now face is securing the little penguin’s food supply . . . , and this is tied in with the fate of the oceans and mankind as a whole.” The effects of global warming and climate events, such as El Niño, on the ocean’s food supplies pose big questions that researchers are now studying intensively.

The results of this research will no doubt increase our appreciation for the diverse yet fragile planet we share. Thanks to the tender care already shown for the wildlife on Phillip Island, you too may one day have the chance to be among the spectators who excitedly whisper, “Here come little penguins on parade!”


^ par. 3 Little penguins were formerly known as fairy penguins and are often called little blue penguins.

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Spectators, seats, and floodlights​—the stage is set for a penguin parade

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From chick to full-grown bird in just ten weeks

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Photos: Photography Scancolor Australia

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Photos on pages 16 and 17: Photography Scancolor Australia