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Scientific name: Eudyptula minor. The Fairy penguin is the world’s smallest penguin and, at about 1 kg, is thought to be about the size of the first penguins that evolved from flying ancestors. Six subspecies are recognized. The breeding season can be extremely variable. Fairy penguins moult once at the end of the breeding season.
40-45 cm. The Fairy penguin closely resembles juveniles of the genus Spheniscus, but their ranges do not overlap. Upper parts are pale blue to a dark grey-blue depending upon age, season and subspecies. The transition from the dark upper parts to the white plumage of the lower body is not as well defined as in other penguins, going through shades of grey and brown, especially in the face.
Fairy penguins are widely distributed in Australia (from Western Australia along the southern coast of Australia up to New South Wales) and in New Zealand (from Northland to Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands). The White-flippered penguin (E. m. albosignata) is an endangered subspecies, restricted to Banks Peninsula and Motonau Island (South Island, New Zealand) that has often been treated as a full species. Geographic variation of size, extent of white on the tail and flipper, and colour tone of the back is considerable. Six subspecies have been described: novaehollandia in Australia, iredaei in northern New Zealand, variabilis from Cook Strait, New Zealand, albosignata on Banks Peninsula, minor in the lower part of the South Island, New Zealand, and chathamensis from the Chatham Islands.
In contrast to the other species, Fairy penguins are nocturnal. That means they generally do not enter the shore before dusk and leave it before dawn. They forage during the day and often will sleep beside the nest at night after they have fed chicks. This species nests in burrows, under trees, in rock crevices, and sometimes in caves. Usually nests are clustered to form colonies, but single breeding pairs are not uncommon. At sea Fairy penguins are often found alone or in small groups of up to ten birds, but sometimes these groups can be much larger. Although foraging trip durations can be highly variable, Fairy penguins tend to stay close to the coast.
The breeding season of Fairy penguins is highly variable from place to place and in some areas from year to year. It usually begins in somewhere from late June to September, although there is no clearly defined period of arrival, with penguins continuing to visit the colony outside of the breeding season. In Western Australia, egg laying may begin as early as April. Typically, a clutch of two eggs is laid and average of 2.8 days apart. In many areas there are second or, sometimes even, third clutches laid, either in response to breeding failure (replacement clutches) or after successfully fledging chicks (double brooding). Incubation tends to last for 33-37 days, depending upon locality. Most foraging trips of breeders during both incubation and chick rearing tend to last less than a day. However, especially during incubation trips of a week or more are not uncommon at some localities. Chicks are guarded for 20-30 days, but in some situations this can be as low as 8 days. Chicks of cave-dwelling Little penguins may form small crèches. Fledging varies between 48-63 days.
Fairy penguins feed mainly on fish, especially sardines and anchovies, but also cephalopods and to a very small degree crustaceans.
Migration and vagrancy
Juveniles disperse widely after fledging. Adults sometimes undertake long trips at sea during the non-breeding season, but return regularly to the colony throughout the year.
Conservation and status
IUCN category: Lower Risk. Not globally threatened. Total population estimated at about 1,000,000 birds of which about half may be breeders, giving something in the order of 250,000 pairs. The population of the White-flippered subspecies, E. m. albosignata, consists of about 2,200 pairs and is listed as Endangered.