The plumage is slate-blue with a bright white belly. They are found on most of New Zealand's coastline and in southern Australia.
Like all penguins they cannot fly, but their paddle-like flippers are excellent for ‘flying’ through the water.
Little penguins forage for food up to 25 km offshore and 70 km from the colony. They can reach speeds of up to 6 kph underwater. Little penguins only come ashore under the cover of darkness and live underground in burrows, natural holes, or under human structures or buildings.
The population and range of little penguin has been declining in areas not protected from predators. Where predator control is in place, populations have been stable or increasing.
In Canterbury, the little penguin has a characteristically broad white band at the front of the flipper but is regarded as being the same species.
Little penguin/kororā swimming
People and penguins like to live in the same places - prime coastal habitat, and penguins still try to live with people. They were common in New Zealand, but most are now on offshore islands where there is less disturbance.
Why and when they come ashore
Adult birds come ashore between May and June to prepare nests. This small bird may waddle up to 1.5 km from the sea, and climb 300 m to find the perfect nest site. Traditional nests are in underground burrows, under vegetation, in crevices, between rocks or in caves. Since people came onto the coastal scene, little penguins have also taken to nesting under houses and boat sheds, in stormwater pipes, and stacks of timber.
Usually two eggs are laid from August to November. Young chicks are generally not left alone until three weeks old, and then both parents are kept busy bringing in food. After about eight weeks the chicks are ready to fledge and fend for themselves.
Independent once again, parents stock up on food before coming ashore to shed their feathers and grow a new waterproof coat. The moult lasts about two weeks and can happen any time between November and March. The penguins are especially vulnerable at this time as they cannot swim.
Where to spot penguins
By day little penguins are out at sea, fishing and feeding, or in their burrows roosting, moulting or tending eggs or chicks. They are more likely to be seen in sheltered harbours and inlets where their low profile may be detected from a boat.
Because of their small size and nocturnal habits, little penguin are rarely seen on land. Generally they only come ashore under the cover of darkness.
There is a commercial opportunity to see little penguin on dusk at Oamaru, and recognised observation spots at other coastal sites.
From May to June, when birds are pairing up and sorting out nests, they are very noisy. You can sometimes hear them if you visit the coast just after dusk.
Many penguin in Wellington harbour have been banded, providing valuable information about their movements and lifespan. We now know that birds do not often move far from home. When ready to breed, many young animals settle just metres from where they themselves were raised. And once settled in an area, they seldom move away.
It is likely that dogs are the greatest threat to little penguin. Cats, ferrets and stoats will also kill them.
These threats have increased with more coastal development bringing more dogs and the clearance of traditional nesting sites.
Little penguin are also killed crossing coastal roads, being hit by boats or caught in set nets.
For all these reasons, little penguin are more abundant on predator-free offshore islands.
Where predator control is in place, populations are stable or increasing.
Little penguin/kororā chicks
Little penguins are protected by the Wildlife Act, which is administered by DOC.
DOC has helped community groups caring for penguins by fencing off areas and providing nest boxes.
View a factsheet summarising some recent research on little penguins:
Little penguin behaviour and ecoystem health (PDF, 8,530K)
You can help
Little penguin/kororā on nest
Keep them safe
- Tie your dog up at night and keep it on a leash at the beach.
- Drive carefully along any coast road, especially at dusk and dawn.
- Consider creating a neighbourhood penguin sanctuary, providing pest control and safe nesting areas.
A scruffy penguin is probably moulting, not sick:
- Leave it alone.
- The safest place for a moulting bird is its hiding place away from dogs, cats, ferrets and stoats.
What if you don’t want noisy penguins nesting under your house?
- Little penguins often return to where they hatched. Before the breeding season begins (late March-April), block up access points under your house.
- Check you haven’t blocked a bird in, or separated a parent from its chicks. It is risky to block penguins’ access while they are nesting or moulting (from May to early March), as you may trap birds under the house. Also, by sealing them out, you may expose a moulting bird to predators.
- Consider providing a nest box elsewhere on your section.
Build a nest box
Little penguin/kororā and nest box
The nest box design (below) has been successfully used where suitable nest sites have not been available, or to relocate birds evicted from their chosen nest site (eg removed from under houses).
Nest box design (PDF, 152K)
Little penguins readily adopt the boxes, in some cases being occupied just a few hours after being placed!
Penguins show a preference to nest boxes over natural sites and breeding success in the boxes has been equal or higher than that observed at natural sites.
The boxes are designed to be partially or completely buried, however they can be used as free-standing units. They should be placed with the tunnel entrances pointing slightly downhill (for drainage) and around 2 m apart. If the lid is left accessible for easy inspection, secure firmly with a large rock as penguins may dislodge it during courtship or territorial defence. If regular inspections are not required, nail or screw the lid down.
Do not provide nesting material, the penguins will find their own. Materials like hay or straw can cause respiratory infections.
See also: Places for Penguins project on the Forest and Bird website