If you happen to visit the Penguin Foundation at Australia's Phillip Island Nature Park, you may encounter an unusual sight - Little penguins waddling around in brightly colored turtleneck sweaters. Unfortunately, it is not because the flightless birds are trying to establish a new fashion trend, but because they are victims of oil spills. Confused? Read on!
According to the Foundation that rescues and rehabilitates the birds, the hand-knitted sweaters are crucial in saving the lives of the helpless creatures when they get affected by oil spills. Besides the danger of ingesting some, penguins exposed to large amounts of oil are also more likely to die of starvation and exposure. That's because the oil separates and mats their feathers, allowing water to seep in. This makes the birds cold and heavy, and less efficient at catching prey.
The good news is that if the birds are lucky enough to be rescued and taken to centers like the one run by the Penguin Foundation, they can be cleaned and released back to the wild, in no time at all. However, there is still the danger of them ingesting some of the poisonous substance before the cleaning process has been completed. Given that a patch of oil the size of a thumbnail is enough to kill the little bird, conservationists had to think of an innovative solution.
In 1998, a volunteer came up with the idea of attiring the Little penguins with the sweaters and it worked like a charm. The Foundation officials say that during the last major oil disaster near the area in 2001, the sweaters helped save 96% of the 453 contaminated penguins.
Over the years, the researchers have fine-tuned the knitting pattern to make sure that the wool does not damage the penguin's feathers and that their flippers or beaks do not get entangled. The sweaters are knitted with 100% wool, which has a unique ability to act as a breathable insulator. This helps keep the tiny penguin bodies at the perfect "Goldilocks temperature" - neither too hot, nor too cold! The Penguin Foundation is not the only one using this method to save the birds. The Tasmanian Conservation Project has also been saving their oil affected Little penguins using these adorable "wooly jumpers".
Of course, these flightless birds are not the only victims of careless oil spills. According to the Penguin Foundation, over 100,000 birds of all kinds are contaminated each year. Unfortunately, not all are as lucky as the Little penguins that end up at this sanctuary.
Also known as "blue" or "fairy" penguins, Little penguins are the smallest of the 17 species of the birds that are endemic to the southern hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, sub-Antarctic islands, South America and Africa). The diminutive animals that measure a mere 33cm (13in) tall and weigh just one kilogram (2.2 lbs), used to waddle around southern Australia and New Zealand in large numbers. However, over the years their numbers have declined drastically, thanks to predators like feral and domestic cats, as well as the spread of human settlement. As a result, there are now only about a million of the cute birds left in the colonies that are scattered around the region's various small islands and some isolated coastal locations.
Resources: penguinfoundation.org,wikipedia.org, mirror.co.uk