“There were chicks in burrows already,” he explains. “We needed to know how they’d interact. Would the penguins accept the dog? Some birds were bolder than others. While some walked straight past the dog, others waited until the dog moved away before coming out of the sea.”
With only two breeding pairs, it was easy to gauge the success of the experiment. Chick weights were monitored to determine how the dogs affected the penguins. “If the chicks were healthy and gaining weight, that showed the parents were coming back to feed them. Weights showed they were progressing normally.”
Williams visited once a day to bring food and water for Oddball and to check on her health. Oddball got along with the penguins, but after three weeks, she ran away — back to Marsh’s farm. Another experienced chickenguardian dog, Missy, replaced her, but it wasn’t long before she also left the island for her farm home. By the time the trial ended after four weeks, the penguin chicks had fledged (grown up) and no penguins had died from fox predation. Another trial was planned for the following year.
In anticipation, puppies Electra and Neve were acquired at eight weeks of age and spent six months bonding to chickens at Marsh’s farm. Human contact was minimized and the young dogs settled in well. Williams, now a council employee, brought his dog Esta to demonstrate her calm demeanor around the penguins, and he was able to reduce the time he spent with the dogs. Then, disaster struck.
Some 10 penguins were found dead from internal bleeding. Almost certainly, they were killed in play by Electra and Neve. “It’s common with juvenile Maremmas,” says Williams. “With a sheep or a goat, the dog doesn’t really hurt the animal. When it’s a onekilogram penguin, they can’t stand up to that sort of puppy stuff.” Under public pressure, the council relieved them of their duties and Williams’ dog Esta took over patrols.
These problems were part of the learning process. As Williams reflects, “No one had done anything vaguely like it before. It’s an evolving project. We were constantly having discussions about how we could do things better.”
The fol lowing year, two new pups — dubbed Eudy and Tula (after the penguin species’ Latin name, Eudyptula minor) — joined the guarding effort. They’re now almost two years old and proving their worth. As with the first group of dogs, no penguins have been lost to fox attacks on their watch. Middle Island’s colony of Little Penguins now numbers 205.
Little Penguins have a sharply defined routine. In summer, the breeding season, they spend their days at sea, hunting fish. Returning at sunset to feed their chicks, they noisily socialize until dawn the next day. After breeding, they go into a molt for three weeks, replacing all their feathers. Particularly vulnerable at this time, they can starve as they cannot swim to hunt for food. In winter, they may stay at sea several days before building nests prior to mating in the early spring, when the cycle starts again.
Teaching a dog to guard birds who are not there all day — or all week — was always going to be hard. And as Oddball and Missy demonstrated, teaching a dog to stay on an island when she can trot off it at low tide proved even harder. The dogs’ training involved gradual exposure to the penguins at different times of day, for longer and longer periods. Esta, who was trustworthy with the birds, guided Eudy and Tula’s interactions.
“Esta’s reaction to the penguins showed the puppies that they were not to be feared. There are Short-tailed Shearwaters breeding out there too, so we exposed the puppies to all those phases and the different seasons. They got a picture of what’s normal on the island,” Williams says.
Dave Williams left Warrnambool for a wildlife officer job in nearby Portland, where he supervises another Maremma program for guarding Australasian Gannets, a large seabird. His successor is Paul Hartrick, who now heads a three-person team with responsibility for the Middle Island Maremmas.