The Brave -- and Smart -- Little Penguins

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Who would have thought that politically correct terminology would extend to the little penguins of Phillip Island, Victoria province, just a couple of hours driving time from the city of Melbourne? In Australia, where my daughter and I were spending a few precious tourist days, these little penguins were formerly called “fairy penguins” because of their small size. The smallest species of penguin (Eudyptula minor), about 13 inches in height and 17 inches in length, they can be found on the coastlines of Southern Australia and New Zealand. Phillip Island is said to be home to about 33,000 breeding adults, its one remaining penguin colony.

To me, a “fairy” conjures up the delicate creatures with gossamer wings that populated my story books when I was a child. Or the cartoon fairies in Walt Disney movies. But, owing to sensitivity to the LGBTQ movement, in recent years the “fairy” penguins are referenced in public documents as “little penguins.” Their Maori name is korora.

In any case, they are much, much smaller than the Emperor penguins of the Antarctic, whose lifestyles were captured in “The March of the Penguins,” an awe-inspiring 2005 documentary that caught the popular imagination. The Emperor Penguins sported black and white feathers, but these little penguins in Australia are blue and white – blue-feathered, to camouflage them from land-predators by blending into the deep blue sea where they spend 80 percent of their time foraging for food for their babies; and white-bellied to protect them from predators swimming below them in the sea. They are the only penguins in the world with blue and white outer feathers, which they keep waterproof by preening (and adding a drop of oil onto every feather from a special gland above the tail). Their feathers adapt into flippers for swimming.

Realizing how unique these penguins are, Penguin Island officials provide a way for interested tourists to watch the nightly parade of little penguins emerging from the sea – a ritual that occurs only at sunset and always at sunset, every day. Visitors must order tickets in advance that allow them to sit on benches set not too close to the sea in order not to scare the penguins but still close enough to see them well. As visitors, my daughter and I had to arrive and be seated early for the same reason.

Oh, it is so cold and windy out there on the beach. The sea is freezing cold too. The penguins like it that way. My daughter and I huddled up close to one another in jackets and hats and blankets, but the sea mist and the wind cut right through. Our fingers and toes froze. Only a few hours earlier we had been in warm and welcoming Melbourne. But we had come too far to retreat to the bus.

It was well worth it though, the experience of a true natural marvel as we watched the little penguins become partly visible, almost separating themselves from the waves one at a time, looking around to see if other penguins had arrived yet, and then ducking back into the sea to wait for the safety of additional penguin company before they braved the land.

There was reason to be fearful. Predators in the form of large land birds – sometimes there are feral dogs or cats as well — were already circling the shore in anticipation of the penguins’ sunset arrival. So the little penguins waited. There would be safety in numbers. You couldn’t help but marvel at the wonders of God’s world as more and more penguins appeared in ones and twos and threes. Finally there were enough to get into formation.

Instinctively they formed a little, single-file army, one brave penguin leading. One after another, they marched, following the penguin ahead in a straight line, no penguin diverging, and, once back in the grasses that lined the shore, they hurried directly to their individual burrows (little Australian penguins live in burrows). The land birds did not have the temerity to attack such a formidable-appearing force, even if individually each penguin was only a little over a foot tall.

How did the little penguins know where to go once they crossed the beach to the grasses that lined the shore? They were directed by the cries of their babies. To our human ears, all of them seemed to be crying out to their mothers together in one huge cacophony of wails. But just as a human mother somehow recognizes the cry of her own baby, so the penguins could identify the sound of their own. And they went straight to where their male partners were still guarding the babies. It was a moment not to be missed.

How do you tell the girls from the boys? The males have a little extra hook on their beaks. They are the ones that guard the babies in their burrows while the females are in the sea for long days, gorging themselves on seafood so that they will able to feed their babies. It’s an interesting feeding mechanism, kind of like an internal blender with a spout. They simply regurgitate the food from their beaks into their baby penguins’ hungry mouths. Economical and efficient. The wails on Phillip Island ceased.

Little penguins don’t necessarily mate for life; it depends on the breeding success of the couples in producing eggs. (Divorce rates may run up to 50 percent.) Normally, the females lay two eggs (about the size of chicken eggs), with an incubation period of 35 days. Yes, both parents take turns in incubating their eggs. Then the little ones head out to sea when they are between 7 to 11 weeks old. And they know what to do! As if they were touched by a fairy wand!