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The Story of the Australian Middle Island Penguins

It sounds like a fairy tale but it is actually a true story about a penguin colony in a wildlife sanctuary located on a small rocky place called “Middle Island”, close to the shore of south-western Victoria in Australia. The first records mentioning birdlife dates back to 1855 when Warrnambool’s first fully manned lighthouse station was built.

A story about a miracle: how the idea of a chicken farmer and his Maremma dog saved the “Little penguin” colony.

Picture 1) Australian Museum, Little Penguin, Eudyptula minor

Photographer: M Kuhn © M Kuhn

Little penguins (Dudyptula minor) are the smallest of all penguin species. They spend 80% of their lives at sea swimming and foraging for food returning to their nesting burrows to breed, raise chicks, moult and take a break - at sunset each day the Little Penguins return to land.


On that “Little Island” near Warrnambool - suddenly in early 2005 a sharp decline in numbers was noticed during an initial count by Warrnambool Coastcare&Landcare Network volunteers made from the islands boardwalk, when apparently only 10 Little penguins remained. In 1999, there were 860. Due to the close proximity of the island to the shore with the shifting sands over the years foxes began making their way to the island at low tide and devastated the Little Penguin colony in only a short time.

The Island was then closed to the public in 2006 to protect penguin burrows from another threat: human trampling across the island not using the boardwalk, which can also harm penguins, their chicks and eggs. The closing contributed enormously to the increase in the penguin colony size, but not so much as the acclaimed “Maremma Project”.



Swampy Marsh - a local chicken farmer - suggested Maremma guard dogs could be used to protect the colonies as he had used them to protect his free-range chickens. After much discussion - in a world first - Maremma’s were trained and placed on the island to protect the penguins from foxes during the breeding season. The project has been a huge success with no evidence of fox attacks since the beginning of the project. A steady increase in the penguin colonies size has been reported with an estimated 180 penguins in 2013 rising yearly.

Little Penguin Colony

Picture 2) Warrnambool City Council - Middle Island Maremma project

The first Maremma’s pioneering role as a guardian of the little penguins on Warrnambool’s Middle Island was portrayed in the movie “Oddball” in 2015. Furthermore, the documentary by National Geographic “Oddball: The Nature of A Movie” is an interesting production about the making of the movie.

Image 3)

This little story shows once more how collectively individuals passionate about protecting, maintaining and restoring a natural environment can successfully achieve change.


Australian Museum, 2015 (viewed 23.01.2018)

National Geographic

Official website of MiddleIsland and the Warrnambool Penguins

Owned and Operated by the Warrnambool City Council, 2018 (viewed 23.01.2018)



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