Penguins are one of the most recognized animals on the planet. These adorable, tuxedoed birds that waddle along the ice may have captured our hearts, but it's surprising how little most of us know about them. That's why we're excited about Penguin Awareness Day, which falls on Jan. 20. It's a chance to brush up on our knowledge of penguins, learn about the threats they face, and celebrate their conservation success stories!

cute penguin standing alone

Threats to penguins include the rather obvious issue of climate change, which alters their breeding habitat as well as their food sources. With less ice, penguin species that depend on sea ice for a place to nest and hunt will face serious decline. A 2008 report by World Wildlife Fund estimated that “50 percent of the emperor penguins and 75 percent of the Adelie penguins will likely decline or disappear if global average temperatures rise above pre-industrial levels by just 2 degrees C — a scenario that could be reached in less than 40 years.”

Overfishing is another big issue affecting penguins: the more krill, sardines and anchovies removed from the ocean, the less there is for these magical birds to eat.

However, some threats facing penguins are less apparent. For example, penguins are often caught as by-catch, unintentionally snagged and drowned by hooks and nets dropped for fish — just like turtles, dolphins and sea birds. Shifts in weather patterns during breeding season, including unusual amounts of rain, can have dire effects. Disease, predation by natural and introduced predators, oil spills and ocean pollution are all obstacles that these unique birds face.

Thankfully, not all the news is dire for penguins. In fact, there have been amazing conservation efforts over the years, and on Penguin Awareness Day, we want to celebrate the efforts that have made a big difference for penguins.

1. Match-making for African penguins: The African penguin was recently added to the Endangered Species list, with only about 52,000 left in the wild. Scientists suspect the cause of their decline is a drop in their food source of anchovies and sardines, which are being over-fished by humans. But California Academy of Sciences (CAS) and other aquariums and zoos around the country aren’t giving up hope of bringing these penguins back to healthy population numbers.

CAS is part of a captive breeding program for African penguins that works tirelessly to maintain a self-sufficient and highly diverse gene pool for the species as scientists research what is causing the decline among wild African penguins. The program avoids capturing penguins from the wild and also does not reintroduce penguins, but instead all the aquariums and zoos that are part of the program work together to make sure the captive birds are as genetically diverse and strong as their wild counterparts. It’s a backup plan for the wild populations and, thanks to the dedication of the participants of the program, things are looking good.

2. Little blue penguins get big body guards: These tiny penguins, also known as fairy penguins, have made a splash in the news in recent years after an unusual conservation effort has shown success. We usually don’t think of dogs making good companions to wild birds, but that’s not the case with little blue penguins, which have found protection from predators in the form of Maremma dog guardians.

little blue penguin

Little blue penguins are the smallest penguin species, so they need to have big friends to ward off predators like foxes and feral dogs. “A colony of fairy penguins on Warrnambool’s Middle Island off the south coast of Australia has dwindled dramatically due to attacks by foxes and wild dogs. However, their numbers are rising again thanks to their new bodyguards — two Maremmas, an Italian breed of sheepdog that bonds with the flock or herd of animals it is protecting,” TreeHugger reported in 2009. The experiment with using Maremmas was still a success in 2013, when TreeHugger reported: “We first wrote about this about 4.5 years ago, and since then things have kept improving, surpassing the expectations of pretty much everyone involved. The last census showed about 200 breeding adults, but most importantly, not one little penguin has been killed by a fox since their dog bodyguards landed on the island!”

3. White-flippered penguins get help from a farmer: The white-flippered penguin is one of the world's smallest species of penguin, and for a long time scientists thought they were a color morph of the little blue penguin. But in 2006 it was shown that they are their own species, but a threatened one. However, in the past decade, their population has nearly doubled thanks to Francis and Shireen Helps (yes, that is a more-than-appropriate last name) who own farmland where one of the penguins' major breeding sites is located. The birds were in steep decline for decades, with as much as 80 percent of their population lost in about 50 years. They were victims of introduced predators and habitat loss.

But Helps, who remembers as a child hearing the penguins' loud calls every night, began working with the Department of Conservation (DoC) to install predator traps and set up nesting boxes. He also started providing kayak tours and penguin tours to raise funds for conservation work on his land. His efforts have made a huge difference, not only for bringing back the numbers of white-flippered penguins, but also for the endangered yellow-eyed penguin, which have started to return to the area.

4. Yellow-eyed penguins get help from friends: Elm Wildlife Tours shows off what tourism groups can do for the species they're bringing people to see. The company helps fund conservation efforts for the endangered yellow-eyed penguin, one of the world’s rarest penguin species after the Galapagos penguin. Only around 4,000 are left in the world, so all the help they can get is much needed.

yellow eyed penguin

The New Zealand-based tour group has participated in habitat planting, creating nest sites, and helping with predator control to keep away ferrets and stoats, which were introduced to New Zealand by settlers, as well as feral cats and dogs. Their efforts are helped by the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, formed in 1987, which provides fencing around nesting sites to keep nests safe from livestock, plants trees and shrubs to bring back some of the forest ecosystem where penguins nest (but which was cleared by settlers for pastureland), and purchases land to create reserves for penguins. The efforts of such dedicated conservationists have helped — the species went from only about 150 breeding pairs left on the South Island of New Zealand in 1990, to an estimated 442 breeding pairs on mainland New Zealand by 2011.

5. Saving 40,000 penguins from an oil spill: One of the most wonderful TED talks I've ever listened to was this one by Dyan deNapoli (below). In 2000, a ship sank off the coast of South Africa, spilling 1,300 tons of fuel and threatening the lives and habitat of half of the world's African penguin population. While some researchers said the oiled animals should be euthanized, since their odds of survival were slim, other conservationists disagreed and launched an incredible effort to rescue, clean, and release 19,000 penguins and relocate 19,500 more away from danger.

The effort — the world's largest animal rescue event in history — was a roaring success, with more than 91 percent of the penguins successfully rehabilitated and released. It is also proof that giving up on animals affected by oil spills should never be an option. This was a defining moment in the future of an endangered bird, where one event could have wiped out a large portion of the species. We couldn't be more inspired by the people who got so many birds through this crisis and what their work means not just for African penguins, but for anyone who needs that extra shot of optimism as we continue conservation efforts for our planet.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

Everybody likes penguins: 5 inspiring conservation stories
Learn interesting facts about penguins and get inspired to help with these wonderful conservation success stories.