Omaha Zoo Introduces Five Baby Gentoos

Many people don’t know this, but my great, great grandfather Julius Meyer founded Omaha, Nebraska. Which is why I have a special affinity for the penguins at  the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha.  This Friday the zoo introduced five adorable balls of fluff to the public. The Gentoo penguin chicks, born to four sets of parents, hatched between Dec. 10 and Dec. 21. They are more proof that the Omaha zoo’s breeding programs are among the best in the world. Since 1999, there have been 27 Gentoos successfully hatched at the zoo. The penguins are endearing creatures that can entertain visitors for hours. It’s no wonder the penguin display is one of the zoo’s most popular. The Gentoos make good parents, said Troy Solberg, a keeper at the Scott Aquarium. Mothers and fathers take turns sitting on the nest, feeding the chicks and standing guard.

The young penguins will gain between 10 and 15 percent of their body weight each day, eating a diet of herring, capelin and krill (little shrimp that Solberg calls “Doritos for penguins”).

They will be ready to leave the nest and begin swimming when they lose their down and get feathers – at between two and three months of age. The feathers are incredibly thick, 70 to 90 feathers per square inch, to provide insulation.

The Scott Aquarium’s penguin enclosure holds 86 penguins from four species: Gentoo, king, rockhopper and macaroni. They seem to get along for the most part, unless one shows too much interest in one of the nests. Then the parents make it clear the stray penguin, whatever its species, is not welcome.

The zoo also has two warm weather penguin species in displays outside the aquarium: the little blues and the African black footed penguins. That makes six of the 17 penguin species represented at the zoo, making it one of the largest mixed collections.

Adult Gentoos can weigh as much as 20 pounds, although most are in the 13 to 14 pound range, Solberg said. When they mate, they pretty much mate for life, and they will return to the same nest every year, he said.

It’s impossible to tell a Gentoo’s gender just by looking at one of them. When they get their feathers, keepers will pluck a feather from each to be sent to a testing site to determine sex. Only then will the chicks get names appropriate to their sex and personalities, Solberg said.

Gentoos mate, lay eggs and moult at the same time each year. The captive birds can’t tell changing seasons because the enclosure is kept at a steady 42 degrees. So the zoo changes the lighting to reflect seasonal light. Right now the lights are bright and the penguins, who are native to sub-Antarctic islands, think it’s summer.

Would they have liked being outdoors in last week’s extreme cold? Solberg says no. These penguins have become “hot house” penguins who are happy with temperatures in the 40s – a lot like humans.

A Gentoo penguin feeds one of two of his chicks in the Scott Aquarium at Henry Doorly Zoo on Friday afternoon. The zoo welcomed five Gentoo penguins, which were all hatched in December.

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