13 November 2008

Puppy Power is Penguins' Saviour

A world-first dog trial has proved central to turning around the fate of Warrnambool's Middle Island penguin colony - and now the next generation of pups is set to continue the good work.

After dwindling to a dire population of just four in 2005, penguin numbers at Middle Island have rebounded this year. An early start to the breeding season has already seen eight penguin chicks leave the nest and another 16 are still on the island in various stages of development. Deakin University PhD student Amanda Peucker, who is monitoring the penguins' progress, said the population growth could largely be attributed to the success of the guard dogs in keeping predators, like foxes, off the island.

"A couple of years ago we had something like 180 penguins killed by foxes, now there aren't even any fox prints in the area," she said. Mrs Peucker said about 51 penguins returned to Middle Island this breeding season. "Every year we get just a few more birds breeding," she said. "It's very exciting going out there and seeing the chicks grow. The early breeding season this year was a bit of a bonus too, so hopefully we'll get some more eggs laid in the next few weeks."

After the success of the trial, two female Maremma puppies are undergoing training to become the permanent guardians of the little penguins during breeding season. Environmental scientist and dog trainer Dave Williams said he expected the dogs would be placed on the island full-time next month, when they were six months old.

Right now the pair is regularly on Middle Island learning the ropes from Esta, an older Maremma that is teaching the puppies guardian behaviour. The Maremma guard dog project, which began late in 2006, hasn't been without controversy. The dogs were taken off the island last December after accidentally killing 10 penguins.

However, Warrnambool City Council decided in May this year to extend the project for another 12 months at an estimated cost of $40,000. This includes the employment of a Maremma carer, dog training and monitoring equipment

[Source: The Age]