Penguins Win Me Over
I first became enamored of penguins at the Bronx Zoo’s old “Penguin House”. Twice a day, a door would open and a pail of fish would be tossed into the exhibit. Fashioned like a giant aquarium, the exhibit allowed visitors to watch the penguins dive and grab their meals underwater. Living near the zoo, I had long haunted its grounds and had racked up some great sightings of both captive and wild birds by an early age (nearly 300 native species have been recorded there) – but these creatures were something else indeed! They were birds, to be sure, but departed so radically from the typical bird body-plan that I was driven to learn all I could.
Today, of course, penguins are well known, but for us bird fanciers they still retain a sense of mystery…more so as new facts about their amazing lifestyles come to light!
Working with Penguins
I began working with penguins some 28 years ago, but the experience remains clearly etched in my memory. Named for the intrepid explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) I cared for were housed in an outdoor exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. The work was particularly enjoyable because, due the number of medications that the penguins needed (they lack defenses against diseases carried by native birds), they were trained to line up and accept fish tossed to them. This assured accurate dosing, and, to be honest, was a great excuse to work closely with these most amusing birds.
I once helped hand-rear a young penguin that had been rejected by its parents. All went well, but the bird lacked penguin social skills and consequently was attacked when reintroduced to the colony. Birds imprinted on people often experience difficulties…a hand-raised Great Horned Owl I cared for would try to feed mice to me during the breeding season! So the exiled penguin spent her days waddling around the basement of the Aquatic Bird House, following her keepers and growing evermore spoiled.
Fortunately, the Philadelphia Zoo had some hand-raised penguins, so I drove ours there to make the introduction. The bird made the trip standing on the front seat of the zoo’s van, and I laugh to this day remembering the reactions of gas station attendants along the way! Happily, the Philly birds accepted their big city cousin – but the return trip was quite boring!
Penguins are restricted to the Southern Hemisphere, where they inhabit the coasts of Antarctica, New Zealand, southern Australia, southern Africa and southern South America. None occur north of the equator (and so, despite popular opinion, they never cross paths with polar bears!) but in recent years 2 penguins turned up off Newfoundland…how they got there, no one knows.
Although generally perceived as birds of frigid habitats, a number occur in quite warm areas of South America and Africa. However, the Humboldt, Benguela and Agulhas Currents assure that cold water is readily accessible.
Another commonly-held stereotype is that all penguins nest on ice. Some do, but others utilize frozen grasslands, sub-tropical beaches, bare rock, lava, and even temperate forests.
Penguins reach their greatest species diversity not in Antarctica but rather in the sub-Antarctic waters off New Zealand and the Falkland Islands. The Antarctic coastline does, however, support the greatest number of individual penguins.
Most penguins feed upon fishes, squid and shrimp. Surprisingly, however, Adelie, Chinstrap, Macaroni and Gentoo Penguins subsist almost entirely upon krill. Although barely 2 inches in length, these shrimp-like creatures may be the planet’s most numerous species – some 550 million tons of them are believed present in the Southern Pacific Ocean at any one time!
What’s Next, and What Can I Do?
Please post a comment here and share any zoo or wild penguin experiences you may have. I’ll also be covering various species in detail in future articles, so don’t forget to let me know your favorites.
While working on an exhibit at Connecticut’s Maritime Aquarium recently, I had the good fortune of being able to get close to a group of Black-footed or African Penguins, Spheniscus demersus (please see photo). This species, also known as the Jackass Penguin (due to its bray-like call), is the only penguin to nest in Africa. Its breeding range stretches from the South Africa/Namibia border around the bottom of the continent to Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Please look for my upcoming article on this fascinating bird.
If you wish to learn what you can do to help wild penguins, check out the International Penguin Conservation Work Group.