Half of the penguin chicks from this year’s breeding season on Penguin Island in Western Australia have died, as the colony dwindles and researchers accuse the state government of failing to act.
It is thought that up to 20 chicks, which represented 10 percent of the colony, were lost after New Year’s Day when their parents were unable to feed them, resulting in the worst breeding season since 2011.
Penguins in the colony, where numbers have dropped from about 2,000 birds 15 years ago to about 250, began the breeding season late after heavy rains brought by La Nina improved their food supply.
The resulting chicks survived a heat wave over Christmas weekend with the help of ice blocks dropped into their nests by researchers — anything higher than 35°C can be lethal, as temperatures inside nests can be up to 3°C higher — but things quickly took a turn.
Adult penguins must replace their feathers once a year, usually in December and January, and are unable to enter the water to hunt during this time. When this occurs, they cannot feed their chicks and the birds begin to starve.
When their parents do not return to feed them, the chicks leave their nests to enter the water before they are strong enough.
While it is impossible to know the fate of every individual bird, Erin Clitheroe, who has been conducting surveys of nests on Penguin Island for 14 years and wrote her doctoral dissertation on the colony, said that underweight chicks have a slim chance of survival.
“If they’re abandoned and are leaving the nest at a weight under 900g, they don’t have very much chance of survival, but under 800g is a death sentence,” Clitheroe said.
During the latest survey, the lightest chick weighed just 400g and was found dead a few days later near its nest.
The colony is the second northernmost population to be found in Australia. To remain stable at its current size, every breeding pair must successfully raise one chick each season.
Clitheroe first recommended that the Western Australia Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions set up an emergency feeding program in September to ensure the birds’ survival and the continuation of the colony.
When it was learned that the chicks were in trouble, Joe Fontaine of Murdoch University made a formal request to the agency for an emergency response, but no action was taken in time.
Rockingham City Councilor Dawn Jecks, the organizer behind the Save Rockingham’s Little Penguin campaign, said her “heart sank” when she learned of the deaths.
“The bottom line is that unless responsive and accountable institutional processes are in place, decisions will be delayed and extinctions will occur,” she said.
Jecks said that while the agency has been promoting tourism on the island, plans to construct new infrastructure should be called off and foot traffic into the area should be stopped to take the pressure off the colony while it recovers.
“At the moment there’s just inertia. It’s dire — how do we explain to our grandkids who ask why there are no penguins on Penguin Island and we did nothing to save them?” Jecks added.
Clitheroe said that a broader climate change adaptation strategy should be considered — a call echoed by Nic Dunlop, citizen science program coordinator at the Western Australia Conservation Council.
“We need to give it a go and even if we fail, there’s a lot to be learned which may be useful in protecting other species,” Dunlop said.
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