The little penguin, Eudyptula minor, is the smallest of all penguins. Adults weigh about a kilogram, grow to a height of 40 cm and live, on average, six years.
Little penguins breed in colonies in southern Australia – as far north as Port Stephens in the east to Fremantle in the west – and the species also breeds in New Zealand. The majority of the Australian population is found in Tasmania.
Previous Tasmanian population estimates have ranged from 110,000 to 190,000 breeding pairs, with the most abundant populations found on Tasmanian offshore islands and less than 5 percent on mainland Tasmania. Increasing survey efforts at colonies around Tasmania to provide updated information regarding current distribution and abundance is a priority.
Image copyright Eric J Woehler
Little penguins usually make shallow, short dives between 10–30 m to feed mainly on small school fish, squid or krill. Before coming back to land in the early evening, groups of penguins gather beyond the surf where they may be heard calling to each other. Most birds return to their colonies in small groups within an hour or so of darkness.
Little penguins generally nest in a burrow consisting of a 60–80 cm tunnel with a nest 'bowl' at the end. Nests may also occur under clumps of vegetation or buildings and among coastal rocks.
Little penguins nest in a burrow, creating a nest 'bowl' at the end.
Photo: Perviz Marker
The breeding season can vary between individuals, locations and years, although commonly starts in winter when birds return to prepare the nest. A clutch of two eggs may be found as early as May or as late as December. The penguin pair share incubation shifts of up to a week and hatching occurs after about 35 days.
Chicks fledge at about eight weeks old and move out to sea to feed.
Threats to little penguins include entanglement in gillnets, oil spills and plastic ingestion. Uncontrolled dogs or feral cats can have large impacts on penguin colonies and may kill many individuals. The effects of human habitation, such as road kills, direct harassment, vegetation burn-off and housing development also pose threats to colonies. Seasonal changes in natural food supplies may also cause many young birds to be washed up dead or in weak condition on beaches.
Little penguins can be seen at a number of locations around Tasmania. If you intend to go penguin watching, please first read the penguin viewing guidelines so you do not disturb these highly sensitive birds.
Ideally, join a guided penguin tour. This will greatly enhance your experience as well as help reduce human impact at colonies.
Cradle Coast Natural Resource Management has launched a little penguin education module.