It is late afternoon in December. On Phillip Island near Australia it is a summer month. Still, the wind is chilly there where the fairy penguins always build their nests.
On the rocky ground that rises above the beach, people button their coats and sweaters. They speak in low tones as they look toward the beach and wait. Soon the penguin parade will begin.
Fairy penguins are less than eighteen inches tall. Their heads, backs, and wings are blue or gray blue; underneath they are white. Their legs are short, and they walk flat on their feet with their toes (three on each foot) pointed forward. Their walk is clumsy as they waddle along with their wings lifted out from their sides for balance. But if a rock happens to be in their path, they can easily hop over it.
Down in the bay the fairy penguins are playing in the surf. They seem in no hurry to come out of the water. Back and forth they swim, making joyful little yips. Sometimes they leap out of the water as much as three feet. To the people who are watching them, they appear as carefree as children on summer vacation.
Fairy penguins are skillful swimmers and spend long periods of time at sea. They speed through the water, using their flipperlike wings as paddles and their strong webbed feet as rudders. The water passes over their thick coats of tiny feathers without soaking into them. Even when the water is chilly, the fat under their skins helps to keep them warm.
These little blue penguins are able to swim underwater, but they must come up every minute or so to breathe. They dive rapidly to catch their food and then return quickly to the water’s surface. They have been recorded swimming at speeds of thirty feet per second!
Fairy penguins find all the food they need in the sea, and they eat their food in the water. Small fish, squid, shrimp, and other small sea animals provide a fine meal for them.
In the bay the penguins continue to play in the surf until dusk. On the ground above, the people are waiting quietly. Then one penguin comes ashore. The way seems safe, so all the other penguins come out of the water to follow their leader.
They give their feathers a brisk shake before crossing the narrow strip of sandy beach. The rise of rocky ground above them, where the grass is high, is where they must go to reach their nests. Once they arrive there, the penguins stop playing follow-the-leader and go singly or in pairs to their own nests. There are many paths among the rocks and tall grasses on this penguin reserve; and under the rocks and grasses are burrows from four to fifteen feet long. At the ends of the burrows are the penguins’ nests.
Before going inside their burrows, the penguins stop to preen their feathers. Sometimes this grooming lasts a half hour.
Each year in October and November the female fairy penguins begin laying one or more white or slightly green eggs that are about the size of a hen’s egg.
As soon as the eggs are laid, the parents take turns incubating them. They place the eggs on top of their feet and hold them there with a fold of their warm bodies. Then each penguin stays with the eggs for a week or more while its mate goes out to sea for food. The penguin on the nest becomes very hungry, but when its mate returns, they exchange places.
After about five and a half weeks, the eggs hatch and out step the newborn chicks. They are lovely little creatures, thickly covered with fine gray feathers. And are they hungry!
The parent penguins go out to sea before daylight and return at dusk. Their stomachs are crammed full of food, and they bring some of it back up into their mouths to feed to their chicks.
The young fairy penguins eat and grow until they are able to leave the burrows. When they are six weeks old, they are able to look for their own food. Until then, their parents take very good care of them.