9 Enchanting Facts About Fairy Penguins

Little Penguins (Eudyptula Minor) playing in the Waves, Australia (XXXL)
4FR / Getty Images

Fairy penguins (Eudyptula minor), also known as little penguins, are tiny, slate-blue animals found along the coastlines of southern Australia and New Zealand. Not only are they more colorful than most aquatic birds, but they're also notably smaller, growing to be less than a foot tall and about 2.5 pounds. There are six subspecies of fairy penguin and they have extremely long lifespans compared to other birds. On average, they live to be 6.5 years old, although some have reached the age of 25.

Here are nine facts about the miniature, Down Under-dwelling wonders.

1. Fairy Penguins Exhibit a Unique Coloration

Australia: pair of young blue Fairy Penguins
Goddard_Photography / Getty Images

As their common name suggests, these penguins are born with vibrant blue plumage. They're the only penguins to deviate from the black-and-white standard — and, in fact, even their eyes are blue. Young chicks typically exhibit a brighter blue than their elders, who develop into a more indigo hue with age. Their necks and bellies are usually grey and the undersides of their wings are white. The blue and white countershading helps to camouflage them while they're swimming.

2. They Spend Most of Their Lives in Water

Blue penguin swimming in a cold sea
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Fairy penguins spend up to 18 hours a day in the water. They only come to shore to sleep during the molting and breeding seasons. While out at sea, they consume their body weight daily in krill, squid, and small fish, such as anchovies and sardines. They usually stay close to land, only venturing about 15 miles from shore. When swimming slowly at the surface, they use their feet to paddle. To move faster, they use their wings to propel them through the water at speeds of up to 3.7 miles per hour.

3. They Can Be Noisy

Fairy penguins are known for being extremely vocal. Although they also communicate with body movements, these social animals are equipped with specialized throat structures that contribute to their squawking and high-pitched braying — which is how they send messages to each other on land. Their calls sound much different than those of other bird species, and they occur mostly at night. In addition to the squawking and braying, fairy penguins may also bark, hiss, cheep, and growl. Males are more vocal because they use their calls to attract mates and defend their territory.

4. Fairy Penguins Are Serial Monogamists

Fairy penguins use annual courtship rituals to attract mates. Males will throw their heads and necks back and their wings up in an exuberant display. Sometimes, a group of males will compete for a female. When the female chooses her mate, they'll engage in a courtship dance that involves braying and walking in circles. Females reach sexual maturity after two years and males reach theirs after three years. Females lay one to two eggs at a time and let the eggs incubate — in a nest built by their partners — for around 37 days. The male penguin incubates eggs for the first several days while the female forages to build up her fat supply. They remain faithful to their chosen partners throughout the entire process.

5. Males and Females Take Turns Caring for Their Chicks

Fairy penguin chick in a burrow of sticks and foliage

David Hamments / Flickr

Raising chicks is the most energy-intensive period of the fairy penguin's year. They use nearly a third of their annual calorie intake during this time. In the first two to three weeks of a chick's life, its parents will alternate caring for it: One will spend three to four days at sea before returning to swap places with its partner. After the first few weeks, both parents forage daily to keep their rapidly growing chicks fed. The chicks are on their own at about 8 weeks old. At that time, they usually leave their natal beach and don't return for 12 months.

6. Some Are Protected by Sheepdogs

Dogs are generally a threat to these little birds, but that's not the case on Middle Island, located in Stingray Bay, Australia. Decades ago, when a pack of European red foxes migrated to the island during low tide and began wiping out its entire penguin breeding colony, a local farmer recommended Maremma sheepdogs as a means of protection. Now, these trained guardian dogs keep foxes from preying on the penguins during the breeding season. To further protect their burrows from human trampling, Middle Island has remained closed to the public since 2006.

7. Fairy Penguins Have Thousands of Feathers

Fairy penguins have an impressive 10,000 feathers, roughly. Their skin and primary feathers feature fine layers of down and they also have filoplumes, which are microscopic, hair-like feathers barbed at the tip. Scientists are still researching the function of all these different types of plumage, but it is known that their downy feathers help trap warmth and maintain dryness. Penguins preen using oil from special glands at the base of their tails. This process makes their outer feathers waterproof and reduces drag as they "fly" through the water.

8. Their Scat Sparkles

Because of the oily fish they eat, fairy penguin scat looks pixie-dusted, glittering with sparkling scales left undigested. During the first part of every breeding season, the penguins primarily eat a single fish species, but that species isn't always the same. For the remainder of the season, their diets are more varied. Researchers collect the penguin droppings to determine the availability and abundance of prey species.

9. They Face a Number of Threats

Despite being a species of least concern, fairy penguins are locally threatened in many areas. Dogs, cats, and rats are invasive predator species. Oil spills and pollution — such as fishing lines, discarded nets, and plastics — pose serious problems for the penguins, too. In addition to the risk of entanglement and accidental ingestion, plastics release chemicals that interfere with the fairy penguins' sense of smell.

With climate change causing temperatures in southwestern Australia to increase, fairy penguins are now also dying from a lack of prey and overheating while on land.