Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s previous World of Wonder columns can be found here.
Just on the heels of National Penguin Awareness Day (January 20), I wanted to turn the spotlight on the smallest of the penguin family: the fairy penguin.
Fairy penguins (also known as little blue penguins) live in rookeries along the coast of Australia and New Zealand. These little guys grow to only about a foot tall and keep their signature indigo feathers waterproof with a special oil from their tail glands. Their pink feet tuck in to help them when they speed through the ocean in search of some anchovy or arrow squid nibbles.
Squid nibbles! Yes, you will have to repress the urge not to baby-talk at them if you see these little blue penguins waddle and turn their pale hazel eyes towards you. But don’t let their size fool you: fairy penguins are tough little workers — spending most of the day hunting for food and returning in their daily dusk-parade back to the rookery.
They return home under cover of night because dogs, foxes, and feral cats are all predators for the fairy penguins. Also, many penguin-watching ‘tours’ will ask tourists to watch from a distance, as fairy penguins have excellent night vision and will wait silently in the ocean if they see giant shadows standing between them and the rookery. If fairy penguins hang out in the ocean at night for too long, it messes up their natural clocks — which tell them when to get food to their babies — and may even alter their reproductive cycles.
Which leads me to the biggest threat to fairy penguins. You guessed it: us. Whole colonies have been affected by careless net fishermen, and many fairy penguins have been found dead and washed ashore with soda can/bottle rings wound tightly around their little blue necks. So far they haven’t appeared on any endangered lists, but I wanted you to know a little about these wee penguins, while they are still out there in abundance — diving deep all day long for juicy krill — and making that dangerous walk back to their burrows to coo and call to their star-lit family.
P.S. For you computer nerds: Tux, the Linux mascot, is actually based on a fairy penguin. Legend has it that one of these penguins bit the finger of the creator of Linux while he was vacationing in Australia. He never forgot the pluck and determination of that creature, and so decided it was the animal to best represent that operating system.