Summer Series 11: The little blue penguin – our very own ‘Happy Feet’

They are tiny, burrow under the boards of your seaside bach, and make a heck of a lot of noise in the dead of night. They think night-time is the right time for … calling loudly in a raspy voice!

They are tiny, burrow under the boards of your seaside bach, and make a heck of a lot of noise in the dead of night. They think night-time is the right time for … calling loudly in a raspy voice!

Little blue penguins are birds that can be found everywhere around the coast of New Zealand and on many parts of Australia’s coastline too. “There isn’t much of the coast of New Zealand that you wouldn’t see them,” says National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research seabird ecologist, Dr David Thompson.

They are the world’s smallest penguin measuring in at 30 cm tall, a flightless bird but adept in the water. They can swim for more than a minute under water. When they do this, their heart rate drops to only five or six beats per minute.

These nocturnal birds come ashore under cover of darkness. If you are lucky enough to see one you can recognise them by their brilliant blue colour combined with a vivid white vest of feathers which covers their protruding belly. They have a good amount of fat for insulation under their feathers. In fact, they suffer from being too hot most of the time.

Like humans, they have an upright posture. The hind limbs are attached at the back of their body. They have the characteristic penguin waddle – as their hips cannot rotate on the backbone. They have no waistline and their stomach stretches from their beak to their feet.

The hind limbs of this flightless bird act as a rudder in the water – their very short legs with no knees and solid bones work well for this task. “They effectively fly through the water, twisting and turning. You’d have to be a pretty good kayaker to keep up with them,” says Dr Thompson.

Penguins are very social; they make a variety of calls to each other to keep in contact. They bark as a warning to other penguins saying something like “keep out of my patch.” They bray like a donkey to attract members of the opposite sex, and they make a murmuring sound meaning something close to “hi honey I’m home.”

They have a very close association with humans. They are a species that mingle with people and come into close association with large human populations. They will hop along sea frontage restaurants – “it’s not uncommon to see them in central city harbour areas,” says Dr Thompson.

They have a reduced reproductive system with only one functional ovary or testis.

Following the breeding season, Little blue penguins will spend a couple of weeks ashore moulting and growing a new coat. If you come across a penguin at this time of the year, sitting quietly and looking disheveled, leave it as it is not distressed but in the throws of undress!

Penguins do bite. “They are feisty things, penguins,” says Dr Thompson. “They have an appearance of being comical, but they are wild animals and if you try to pick them up they bite. Their flippers are like pieces of wood and it really hurts if you’re clocked by one.”

Scientist bio:

Dr David Thompson joined NIWA in 1998. He is currently working on seabird projects. At Campbell Island, where there are six species of albatrosses, he is currently studying two: the Campbell albatross and the grey-headed albatross; and he also has a project on rockhopper penguins.

Species Fact file

Common names:


Māori name:


Scientific name:

Eudyptula minor




30 cm


10 years


They eat small fish: anchovies, squid, plankton, krill, small octopi and pilchards.


Nest building involves both partners; nesting begins when the male takes residence in its old nest.

Little blue penguins usually breed for the first time at 2-3 years of age and tend to be monogamous.

Between August and November a breeding pair will lay 1 or 2 eggs which are incubated for 36 days, both parents share the incubation and feeding roles.

The chicks are guarded by one parent for the first 2-3 weeks, after which both parents go to sea in search of food. The chicks become independent after eight weeks.

Things you need to know:

They are a protected species.

Keep your dog away from little blue penguins if you see them on the coast.

Something strange:

Penguins often hold their flippers out to radiate heat and make their feathers stand up to flush out some of the warm air trapped within. They don’t have a problem with being cold.

Little blue penguin (Terrry Greene, Department of Conservation)