Photo: Fairy Penguins at St Kilda, Melbourne

This article featured in Wildlife Lands Issue 13

The little or fairy penguin (Eudyptula minor) is the smallest species of penguin, typically growing to 30–33 cm high and weighing around 1.2 kilograms, though males are commonly a little larger with a deeper bill and bigger head. Lacking any seasonal variation in appearance, the head, fins and upperparts are generally blue, with slate-grey ear coverts fading to white from the chin to the belly, and immature individuals having a shorter bill and slightly bluer back and wings. Little penguins are found on southern Australian and New Zealand coastlines.

Little penguins are generally inshore, opportunistic feeders with a diet of mainly small schooling fish such as anchovies and pilchards, as well as squid and other small ocean dwelling creatures. Their nesting behaviour is also opportunistic, using anything that provides relative shelter where burrowing conditions are poor, including pipes or under vegetation. Typically however, they burrow in sand dunes, rock piles, sea caves and occasionally under buildings. Nests usually consist of a tunnel with a nest bowl at one end large enough for a penguin to stand in.

Like many seabirds, they have a fairly long lifespan (six to seven years) and reach sexual maturity at about three years for males and two years for females. They are monogamous only within a breeding season and share incubation and chick rearing duties for the first three months. Nest building is usually in September, producing a clutch of one or two white or lightly mottled brown eggs. Although both eggs normally hatch, competition for food usually leads to just one chick fledging successfully.

Humane Society International (HSI) has long been involved with the species, successfully nominating the 'Little penguin population, Manly Point area' as an Endangered Population under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act, 1995, in 1997. While considering HSI's nomination, the NSW Scientific Committee found that the decline of Sydney's little penguin population is due to habitat destruction from development and predation from domestic and introduced animals, particularly dogs. Other threats included reduced food sources, toxic effects of oil spills, jet skis and powerboats, chronic lead poisoning (by ingestion of lead fishing sinkers) and entanglement in fishing tackle and plastic debris.

Despite the population being in generally good health, the Manly penguins are of significant conservation value given their disjunction from other populations, their occurrence in Sydney Harbour, and being the only known breeding colony on mainland NSW. Their proximity to a major urban centre highlights the importance of habitat conservation and the integral role of community participation in the conservation of biodiversity, both factors integral to the Wildlife Land Trust.

Following HSI's nomination and the eventual listing of the species, a Recovery Plan was developed by the NSW Government, which included monitoring the population, educating the community and protecting the little penguin habitats. A 2007 progress report noted that the population declines were reduced, with promising signs such as increased chick fledging apparent.