Revolutionising nesting boxes to save Little Penguin populations

New Little Penguin (or Fairy Penguin) nesting boxes, made by members of the Rotary Club of Palm Beach, WA, have the potential to revolutionise artificial nests worldwide, according to club member and bird specialist Rick Dawson.

A heat trial of the boxes has been running on Western Australia’s Penguin Island to assess if double wood panel boxes (double glazed principle) or composite boxes (fibre glass outer and insulation between) are cooler than the existing boxes.

Six boxes of each new type were made and installed on an open, hot and inhospitable area of Penguin Island on January 15. Some also had sunshades, and some did not. All were fitted with heat sensors known as ‘Ibuttons’ to detect temperature and humidity and record the data every hour.

“Much of the data has not been analysed yet,” Rick said. “However, preliminary data from a handful of samples shows the new boxes are three degrees cooler than the old-style ones, and that is a significant difference. Those with sunshades are four degrees cooler.”

Even more startling is that ambient temperatures in the new boxes are nine degrees cooler than the outside temperatures.

Before the trial began, Rick had high hopes for the composite boxes, which are made of the same material used in modern caravans.

“The composite style boxes are very light, durable and non-porous,” he said. “If these are cooler, they will revolutionise this type of nesting box.

“Virtually indestructible, they will last much longer than wooden boxes. And, because they are so light, they will be easy to transport and install.”

The heat trial – headed by Murdoch University researcher, conservation biologist Dr Erin Clitheroe, on behalf of WA’s Department of Parks and Wildlife – began on January 17 and is still running – covering the hottest time of the year.

Half a dozen Palm Beach Rotarians produced the boxes at member Des Mant’s home, using his shed and equipment. Neil Wall did all the drawings, estimations and arranged purchase of all materials.

Rick Dawson, Dee Pyke, Kerilee Dawson and Graham Hunter helped with assembly and delivery.

“Everyone went over to the island on the ferry,” Rick said.

This latest batch of nesting boxes was completed quite quickly because it was much smaller than earlier projects. The wooden ones took three full days – a Monday, Thursday and Friday. The new composite ones were finished in two days.

In all, the club has made 54 nesting boxes for Little Penguins. The club has also been heavily involved in Rick’s conservation work for WA’s endangered black cockatoos, helping to install artificial hollows in the south-west of WA. The club recently repaired and replenished approximately 100 artificial and natural hollows in one of the key Carnaby’s Cockatoo breeding grounds. Nesting attempts in this area have risen from 41 in 2009 to 147 last season.

>> Penguin Island is a 12.5-hectare island off the coast near Perth, approximately 660 metres from Shoalwater. It is home to about 250 Little Penguins, the largest population of the birds in Western Australia.

>> Since 2007, the island had experienced an 80 per cent decline in penguin numbers from a peak of 1,700 that year.

>> Little Penguins lay one or more clutches of two eggs between June and September. Both parents sit on the eggs over five weeks. Two chicks often hatch, but usually only one is raised unless food is abundant.