By Kristen Vickery
The Little Penguin is the only species of penguin with colonies on the southern coastline of Australia. The Little Penguin goes through a crucial process annually known as moulting. The process occurs between February and April, following the breeding season - when we all need to slow down a little and take more care.
The moulting process involves the adult penguins simultaneously shedding their old feathers, which are then replaced with new feathers over a period of a couple of weeks. During the moult, the penguins’ feathers are not waterproof, which means they must stay on land for the weeks that this occurs.
Before moulting the adults feed intensively to create a store of energy and body fat. This can sustain them over the long moult period where they cannot enter the water to feed and may lose up to half their body weight. Moulting Little Penguins are vulnerable to both natural and introduced predators, and also to anthropogenic disturbances.
Lisa Hood, rehabilitation coordinator for Australian Seabird Rescue, confirms the need to be extra careful over the coming months. “When Little Penguins come to land to moult, they often turn up in odd places.” She said. “If you come across a penguin It is important not to approach, but to keep a respectful distance and phone ASR for advice.”
Dog attacks are one of the biggest threats to moulting penguins while immobile and easier to locate. All dogs should be kept on leashes when visiting coastal areas to minimise the risk of attacks, which are often fatal.
It is up to the community to follow guidelines that minimise potential negative implications for the Little Penguins. If you do see Little Penguins around at this time of the year do not approach but keep a respectful distance while observing.
During the moult little penguins may appear fatigued and have tattered or patchy feathers. This is part of moulting, however if you have any concerns it is best to call for advice.
The process of moulting is a normal annual event and in most cases the Little Penguins go about their business without incident but it is always worthwhile checking if you are unsure. Ms Hood said, “The public are really important in a few ways, keeping well away from the Little Penguins and giving them as wider berth as possible, and calling us if they see anything unusual with the bird or feel they are in a dangerous situation. And of course, please keep your dogs under control at all times.”
Ms Hood also stresses the importance of not handling Little Penguins unnecessarily and following instructions if it does need care. “Sometimes well-meaning members of the public decide to ‘rescue’ penguins unnecessarily and this is extremely stressful for the bird, please always seek advice before handling or moving.”
If you locate a little moulting penguin in a high traffic area that dogs are allowed to occupy, it is critical that you contact Australian Sea Bird Rescue South Coast on 0431 282 238.
While waiting for help, it is important to refrain from touching or disturbing the penguin and if possible, remain with it until assistance arrives.
Kristen Vickery is an Australian Seabird Rescue member on the Far South Coast.
Feature image: Little Penguin or Fairy Penguin. Photo credit: parksaustralia.gov.au