Everyone knows that African penguin chicks may be the most huggable bird in creation. Their portly profiles and soft juvenile feathers give them the look of over-sized Beanie Babies. And if they seem to cry out for cuddling, it is Jennifer Odell’s job to cuddle them, to get them accustomed to contact with people.
“It’s helpful for the bird to be less sensitive to human interactions, so that it’s relaxed during veterinary exams,” said Odell, associate curator of mammals and birds at the Georgia Aquarium, as she plopped a seven-pound living plush toy into her lap. Cuddling penguin chicks has its down side. The object of Odell’s attention, named B1 (the chicks don’t get real names until the staff can determine their sex), and its three creche-mates, B2, B3 and B4, were shedding their gray downy feathers, making Odell and her colleagues look like lint-flecked mill workers.
There was also the occasional deposit of penguin guano to avoid. (With a penguin in your lap, sometimes the guano is unavoidable.) Despite those drawbacks, Odell’s team, which has been tending to the new chicks around the clock, had the exhausted but happy look of new parents. Hatched in January, these penguin youngsters are the second crop of chicks born at the aquarium and are the result of a concerted effort to expand the aquarium’s brood of 45 African penguins. That work began in 2010, with the redesign of the penguin exhibit to closely mimic the birds’ natural habitat.
In particular, the lighting of the exhibit was crafted to match the natural light of South Africa. Technicians created a palette of illumination that shifts in color and intensity throughout the day and through the seasons, waxing and waning from pink to blue tones, and from bright to soft, to generate the same lighting cues that trigger breeding cycles in the wild. The effort has been successful, as aquarium personnel demonstrated recently, leading the AJC on an exclusive visit with the new babies.
African penguins come from the southwestern coast of the continent, from Namibia to South Africa, and from that area’s coastal islands, where the weather is comparable to that of the California coast. The species numbered 3 million in the early 1900s, but has dwindled to about 80,000 — mostly from loss of habitat and from diminishing food sources — and is listed as endangered.
The South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), based near Cape Town, South Africa, works to rehabilitate abandoned and orphaned penguin chicks and rescues those that have become saturated with oil from nearby refineries. The Georgia Aquarium helps support that mission, with monetary and in-kind donations. Odell and animal training specialist Erin Morlang traveled to South Africa in November to help hand-feed and raise a creche of 130 chicks at SANCCOB. Because they already were skilled at feeding seafood smoothies to infant penguins, their help was particularly valuable.
While they were in South Africa the two aquarium workers also helped release six penguins back into the wild. No penguins from Atlanta’s collection will go back to the waters off South Africa — they could accidentally introduce a Western microbe that would be dangerous to the population there. But the genetic diversity of Atlanta’s new generation of penguins will be valuable to the 600 or so penguins currently in human care, according to William Hurley, the aquarium’s senior vice president of zoological operations. Currently these youngsters are spectacularly uncoordinated. They spend much of their time flat on their beaks, after tripping over their own feet.
They also have yet to demonstrate their natural grace underwater. Soon their permanent feathers will grow in, giving them the distinct black-and-white tuxedo look of other adults. They should grow to about two feet in height and about 7 to 11 pounds in weight. “Once they are fully fledged, they will float like corks,” said Dennis Christen, director of animal training, “but they can’t swim until then.”
The penguin chicks will remain off-exhibit until they mature and are ready to join the adults in the collection, said Hurley.
Caring for penguin chicks at the Georgia Aquarium is the local part of an international effort by the aquarium to help conservation efforts in South Africa, where the Georgia folks support an initiative to rescue orphaned, abandoned and oiled penguins.