Penguin population plummets — sheepdogs to the rescue

Last Saturday, like I do on most Saturday’s, I scanned the “Earthweek” feature that shares space with the San Francisco Chronicle‘s weather page. On the world map, my eye caught a graphic of a penguin placed on the southern coast of Australia. Intrigued, I read that wildlife officials have decided to employ sheepdogs in their effort to protect the wee Fairy penguins from extinction.


(Aww, aren’t they the cutest?)

According to Earthweek: a diary of the planet (also detailed on the image above), the Fairy penguin population is plummeting—from a population of 5,000 five years ago to about 100 today. Most of the blame for this rests with the current eating habits of foxes and wild dogs.

Australia’s Herald Sun says that, from November 13 to December 8, officials will “hire” one Maremma sheepdog to test out their pilot project.

“This is innovation born of desperation,” wildlife officer Craig Whiteford of Victoria‘s Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), told the Australian Associated Press.

If we didn’t do anything they wouldn’t last this season.”

How is this topic Ethicurean related?

Well, it’s a bit of a stretch, maybe, but the article also goes on to say that sheepdogs are often used in Australia to protect free-range chickens from similar fates. (Of course, the likelihood of chickens going extinct is very unlikely since they’re so tasty … and not so cute.) And, as an Ethicurean, I see the dying out of species as indicative of how our planet is mirroring the “monoculturalization” of our food and culture. It’s all connected because it’s all so interdependent. Diversity of species and within species is so important to the health of our planet as a whole.

Hopefully, this trial effort will succeed in saving Fairy penguins from leaving the earth for good.

nz_hillside.jpgThinking of penguins, I’m reminded of my trip to New Zealand four years ago, about this time of year, when my friends in Dunedin led us on a “free penguin tour” (unlike those chartered by other touristas). We shimmied down a steep, sandy hillside (at left) to walk across this Pacific Ocean-facing beach. Finally, we climbed up another steep hillside, where a “hide” was located, to watch—without disturbing—the Yellow-eyed penguins on their nightly ritual of return from the sea.

Evern night before sunset, the penguins return from their day spent in the ocean and traverse across the beach to hide in the hillside scrub for the night.

nz_penguin.jpgAfter waiting for quite some time, we saw this begin to happen. Soon several penguins were waddling up the grassy hillside … looking for a spot to get some much needed sleep. (At right: alas, this is the best picture I could get; they seemed to be constantly moving or hidden from view.)

In doing my research for this post, I learned:

  • Yellow-eyed penguins are the rarest and thought to be the most ancient penguin alive today.
  • At the time, these penguins were most likely fighting disease within their community, a disease that was later linked to “an infection of corynebacterium, a family of bacteria that causes diphtheria in humans.” About 60% of all Yellow-eyed penguin chicks born that spring died. This family of bacteria, however, was ultimately deemed the secondary pathogen—the primary pathogen remains unknown.
  • And, on a bit of an ironic note, I discovered that scientists (who study Magellanic penguins) have nicknamed penguins the “sheepdogs of the sea“—for their keen ability in herding schools of fish into tight “balls.” When the ball of fish becomes too tight, some escape and are more easily picked off and eaten.

I can’t end this piece without advocating: if you haven’t seen it already (and you probably have), rent March of the Penguins—a delightful film that follows a year in the life of Emperor penguins—to get a well-rounded, well-told penguin fix.

6 Responsesto “Penguin population plummets — sheepdogs to the rescue”

  1. DairyQueen says:

    Fairy penguins also used to wear sweaters knitted for them; in the aftermath of an oil spill, it saved many cute little lives. (Picture)

    People are still knitting them, although they’re now more for fund-raising purposes.

  2. Corn Maven says:

    Double aww, DQ!

  3. Emily says:


    This is a very specific question, but here goes: I’m a journalist who recently relocated to Melbourne, Australia. I’m trying to do some research into the fairy penguin population that allegedly lives by the St Kilda pier, but I haven’t been able to turn up any substantial info. If anybody knows what the deal is with these penguins, would you email me at EmilyStone200[at] Thanks!

  4. Corn Maven says:

    Hi Emily,

    I did a quick Google search and came up with this link, which at least confirms that they do exist there. BTW, they refer to the FP as Little Penguins, which is just another name for them.

    To quote this page:

    Up to one hundred little penguins make the St Kilda Breakwater their home, remarkable given their proximity to the urban centre of Melbourne. The St Kilda Breakwater was constructed for the 1956 Olympic Games to provide a safe harbour for yachts and provides a rocky and isolated location for the little penguins to live.

    The first breeding record of a pair was recorded in 1974, making the St Kilda Breakwater the only confirmed breeding site for the penguin that is directly attached to the mainland.

    Little penguins spend most of their time in the waters of the bay feeding on pilchards, anchovies and other small fish. At night they return quickly to the safety and protection of their burrows within the breakwater.

    Not sure when this was first posted to the web, but it’s obviously off on the number of them at St. Kilda.

    Oh, and also see here. I think the EcoCentre at the St. Kilda Botanical Gardens (and this web site) is just the place for you to begin.

    Thanks for writing!

  5. zoe says:

    St Kilda penguins are alive and well and there are around 1000 penguins on the St Kilda Breakwater. I am currently setting up a site specifically for research data about this colony. It will slowly but surely give more and more details about this unusual irban colony.

  6. Corn Maven says:

    Zoe, I’m so glad to hear there are around 1,000 penguins there. Thanks for setting up a web site about your work. I particularly enjoyed reading the Q&A section.