By Dr. Becker
There are 17 species of penguins, but only one of them weighs in at just over two pounds as full-grown adults. The aptly named “little penguins” (once known as fairy penguins) live only in southern Australia and New Zealand.
While there are estimated to be about 1 million little penguins living in the wild, the population on a small Australian island known as Middle Island was almost wiped out completely. Their numbers dwindled from about 800 down to just four.
The culprit? Foxes. Middle Island is uninhabited, at least by humans, but it’s only separated from the mainland by a 100-foot channel. At low tide, it’s possible to walk across the sandy bottom, and foxes did just that.
Foxes Nearly Wiped Out Middle Island’s Little Penguin Colony
Little penguins make an easy meal for foxes, but not only that, “Foxes are thrill killers. They'll kill anything they can find,” said Peter Abbott of the Penguin Preservation Project.1
In the worst event, the foxes wiped out 360 birds over just two nights. As the fox population on the island grew, the penguin population quickly dwindled. Then a chicken farmer, Swampy Marsh (real name!), came up with a plan.
He used his Maremma dogs to protect his free-range chickens, why not recruit them to protect little penguins too? Maremmas are sheepdogs bred for guarding livestock, and they proved to be a success on Middle Island.
The first dog on the island arrived about 10 years ago; his name was Oddball. Since then, about seven dogs have inhabited the island, typically from October to March (the penguins’ breeding season), up to six days a week. Amazingly, not one penguin has been killed by foxes in that time. Abbott told BBC News:2
“We immediately saw a change in the pattern of the foxes … Leading up to when the dog went on the island, every morning we'd find fox prints on the beach.
Putting a dog on the island changed the hierarchy. The foxes can hear the dogs barking, they can smell them so they go somewhere else."
It’s a success story fit for the movies — literally! A film about the little penguins of Middle Island, and their dog guardians, was released in 2015, boosting tourism in the area.
You can check out the trailer below. A study about the project, published in the International Journal of Arts and Sciences, further confirmed its success, noting:3
“Maremma guardian dogs have been successfully used to protect a breeding colony of the Little Penguins on Middle Island, in south-western Victoria, Australia.
There has been an apparent cessation of fox predation since Maremmas were introduced, while a concurrent steady increase in the number of penguins breeding on the island has been observed.
Thus during the life of the project from 2006 to 2014 there have been no known incidents of fox predation of Little Penguins on Middle Island. In contrast, prior to the introduction of Maremmas, fox predation was a regular and yearly occurrence for the period including 2000 to 2005.
This suggests that the use of livestock guardian dogs can be an effective tool for preventing fox predation of native wildlife.”
The ‘Oddballs’ of the Penguin Family
Incidentally, little penguins might be described as the “oddballs” of penguin species for a number of reasons, their small size notwithstanding. Little penguins are the only penguins with blue and white feathers instead of the typical black and white.
The color scheme still provides camouflage protection, helping them blend in with the dark water when viewed by predators flying or swimming overhead, and blend in with the light sky when viewed from below. Most penguins are monogamous during breeding season, and many species pick a mate for life.
However, this isn’t necessarily the case for little penguins. According to Phillip Island Nature Park, which is home to about 32,000 of the birds, little penguins have an annual divorce rate of between 18 percent and 50 percent.4
Also worth noting, when coming out of the sea to rest on land, little penguins will only cross the beach at sunset; it’s the safest time in terms of predators.
They’re also creatures of habit, not only returning to live within about 100 feet of where they were born but also following the same path to their burrows each night.5 According to Warrnambool Penguins (Warrnambool Harbour is situated near Middle Island):6
“Little Penguins are great swimmers and being birds look as though they are flying through the water. As they come closer to land they surf in and project themselves up on to land like a small torpedo, usually landing on their feet.
Once on land they waddle from side to side with their heads down, jumping over rocks. They usually follow the same path to their burrow each night and at Middle Island they have created worn paths into the soft sandstone.”
If you happen to be near Middle Island and want to observe the penguins for yourself, be aware that the island has been closed to the public since 2006 in order to protect penguin burrows from being trampled.
You can, however, schedule a “Meet the Maremmas” tour to see not only penguins but also the island’s two current guardian dogs, Eudy and Tula (named after little penguins’ scientific name Eudyptula).