Two Dogs Protect Tiny Endangered Penguins From Being Killed
There’s a small island (uninhabited by humans) off the coast of Australia, where a pair of sheepdogs guard tiny penguins, who used to be in serious danger. The penguins were being wiped out by foxes, and very nearly became extinct. But in 2006, trained Maremma sheep dogs were brought to the tiny island to help protect them.
Eudy and Tula, the maremmas that protect a colony of 150 penguins in Warrnambool, Victoria, from foxes. They are both eight so two new dogs are needed to replace them soon when they retire. Photograph: Warrnambool city council.
And then everything changed….
Middle Island, a beautiful, rugged and windswept outcrop off the coast of southern Victoria is home to a colony of the world’s smallest penguins.
When foxes discovered these little penguins on the small Australian island, they nearly wiped the colony out over night. As the island is close to shore, when the tide was low, the foxes would cross over, without needing to swim. But a Chicken farmer came up with a novel way to protect the birds – and the story has been made into a hit Australian film!
Originally known as fairy penguins, these penguins have been given the title of little penguins. And they are very little. They stand bewteen 30 to 40cm tall.
There used to be hundreds of them on Middle Island – but that was before the foxes got to them.
“We went from a point where we had around 800 penguins down to where we could only find four,” says Peter Abbott from the Penguin Preservation Project.
“In our biggest bird kill, we found 360 birds killed over about two nights. Foxes are thrill killers. They’ll kill anything they can find.”
That particular incident was in 2005, but the problem had been building up for a few years. The fairy penguins, as I’m going to call them (it’s much cuter), faced being wiped out on Middle Island – until a chicken farmer, by the name of Swampy Marsh, came up with a plan. He suggested sending one of his Maremma dogs to protect the birds.
These dogs are sheepdogs, and are generally used to protect flocks or herds of animals. It’s in their nature to protect. They are very territorial.
The dog, the first of several to be used on Middle Island, was called Oddball – and Oddball made quite an impact. So much so, a movie was made about him. Called after himself, Oddball.
“We immediately saw a change in the pattern of the foxes,” says Abbott. “Leading up to when the dog went on the island, every morning we’d find fox prints on the beach. Putting a dog on the island changed the hierarchy. The foxes can hear the dogs barking, they can smell them so they go somewhere else.”
During training, the dogs are introduced in a safe mannor to the penguins and are trained to become friends with them. They then bark at anyone or anything that approaches the penguins.
“We train them that the island is theirs – 90% of their work is through barking,” Abbott said. “But if they did get on to a fox they’d kill it.”
The dogs operate in the penguin’s breeding season, usually from October to March, when they spend five or six days a week on the island. Even when the dogs are not there, their lingering scent is enough to keep the foxes away.
Amazingly, since Oddball and his four-legged successors were introduced 10 years ago, there has not been a single penguin killed by a fox on Middle Island. The fairy penguin population is now steadily rising.
The current dogs patrolling Middle Island are Eudy and Tula, named after the scientific term for the fairy penguin: Eudyptula. They are the sixth and seventh dogs to be used and a new puppy was being trained up by Peter Abbott and his team to start work in 2016. We hope he’s doing a great job!