Thursday, June 6, 2013

3 endangered penguin chicks in New Orleans

Published: Wednesday, June 5, 2013
NEW ORLEANS - Three endangered African penguin chicks are swimming about with adult penguins on display at the New Orleans aquarium.

The gray-and-white chicks hatched in March and will get their black-and-white plumage in about a year.

The Aquarium of the Americas announced their presence Wednesday, two days after the chicks joined more than two dozen adult African penguins and three rockhopper penguins from South America. All three were tiny "preemies" which had to be helped out of their eggs after cracking the shells in an incubator, said senior aviculturist Darwin Long.

Aquarium staff wore waders for the hand-raised birds' first introduction to water deeper than the tub where they learned to swim, he said. The next step was keeping an eye on the youngsters from outside their enclosure.

"If we're not in there, all of a sudden it's like the kids are off on their own in school, things can happen .... Some birds will snip at them, test them - `Who are you?' They're also playing. They battle with each other, peck each other," much as kittens wrestle, he said.

When the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the species endangered in 2010, an estimated 75,000 to 80,000 African penguins, also called blackfooted penguins, lived in the wild, breeding on 25 islands and four mainland sites in Namibia and South Africa.

The organization said numbers had fallen about 90 percent during the 20th century, and were continuing to plummet.

There are many reasons for the collapse, most of them caused by people, said Steven J. Sarro, curator of the National Zoo and species survival plan coordinator for African penguins.

Those include collecting and selling their eggs as food; overfishing of the penguins' main foods, pilchards and Cape anchovies; oil spills - a spill in 1994 and another in 2000 killed a total of 30,000 penguins, according to the IUCN - and guano mining.

"The islands used to have a deep bed of guano" - reportedly sometimes more than 40 feet deep, Sarro said. "The birds would nest in the guano; they'd dig burrows. That's fairly safe from predators that prey on the eggs."

Nineteenth century entrepreneurs mined that guano down to the rock, making it impossible for the penguins to burrow, Sarro said.

Fiberglass "nest caves" are being put on some of the islands to help out, Long said. "You can just place hundreds and hundreds in a colony and birds use them right away."

Audubon has raised 46 chicks since the Aquarium opened in 1990 and now has 31 African and three southern rockhopper penguins.

Long said Audubon's newest chicks will be used in outreach programs rather than for breeding - although each had different parents, one pair of birds is either grandparents or great-grandparents to all three.

The aquarium hasn't had space to put selected pairs together in hopes they'll form a mating bond, he said.

The male, hatched March 23, was named Skua because he had a huge appetite. "He'd gobble everything in sight - 20 fish a day sometimes," Long said. "His appetite is leveling off to something more reasonable - five, six, seven fish a day."

Long dubbed the chicks that hatched March 9 and 14 Hubie and Marina, after the male and female stars of the 1994 animated movie "The Pebble and the Penguin," only to learn that Hubie is female.
He said the sexes look so much alike that DNA is the only way to tell, but, "The first chick was growing at such a fast rate I thought, `This has got to be a guy.'"

The aquarium will hold a contest to name the former Hubie.
Audubon penguins live on Animal Planet:

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