Thursday, September 18, 2014

Children's Zoo in Saginaw welcomes new pair of endangered African penguins

Jeff Schrier | Bamm-Bamm, left, and Dewey, African black-footed penguins, stand in a pen at the Children's Zoo at Celebration Square in Saginaw, Sept. 16, 2014. The zoo staff hopes Bamm-Bamm, one of two new male penguins they recently acquired, will pair-bond and mate with Dewey, one of the female African black-footed penguins already living there. The potential pairs are isolated from the rest of the penguins to give them time to pair-bond. Once they've bonded, they can return to live with the rest of the penguins who are on display to the public.
By Sue White | For
on September 17, 2014

SAGINAW, MI – Clustered on the roof of their shelter, penguins Bamm-Bamm and Robben closely watched the zookeeper washing down their plastic wading pool at the Children's Zoo at Celebration Square.

They've left their temporary quarantine to begin a bonding period with Saginaw female penguins Scooter and Dewey that, if all goes well, will become their partners for life.

Once that bond is established, "we're hoping they'll breed during the winter months, typically between November and February," said Robin Carey, the zoo's education and conservation supervisor.
Meet the African black-footed penguins at the Children's Zoo at Celebration Square in Saginaw
On Monday, Sept. 15, "we could tell Robben and Scooter liked each other," said Animal Collections Director Karen Ackerman. "Scooter was already showing some breeding behaviors. But they were all a little nervous. Bamm-Bamm moved into a nesting area so that was new to him and he and Dewey were new to each other.

"Honestly, they were more interested in the keepers than each other at first. But we left for a little while and when we came back, Robben and Scooter were nestled together."

The next morning, Scooter loudly honked her approval, though Ackerman said that could have meant she was happy to hear her human friends back again.

Once bonded, they'll be introduced to the general penguin population and pick out their own nest in the community complex.

"We had hoped to bring them here in the early spring but Bamm-Bamm started to molt, a stressful time to make that kind of move," Carey said. "Then one of our penguins was molting and when she was done, Robben started to molt. I finally brought them here in the second week of August."
Ironically, the same restrictions brought African penguins to the zoo at 1730 S. Washington in 2003 made it possible for Bamm-Bamm and Robben to come to Saginaw as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan.

The zoo wasn't accredited with the association in 2003, which limited its choice of penguins to those considered "vulnerable" or better. Now the African species, also known as black-footed, are classified as endangered. Under the plan, they're genetically paired with mates in accredited zoos with the ultimate goal of boosting a wild population that fell 60 percent in the past three generations due to climate changes, loss of habitat, oil spills and uncontrolled fishing.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates 75,000 to 80,000 African penguins now live in the wild.

The Children's Zoo at Celebration Square has sent one of its penguins, a female named Petey, to a zoo in New Orleans to breed, though she'll return to Saginaw. But because Bamm-Bamm, who is 1 ½ years old, and Robben, who is 3, come from New York's Seneca Zoo, where its successful breeding program has produced an abundance of chicks, they will become a permanent part of the Saginaw group.

"By looking for under-represented bloodlines in pairing the penguins, we're hoping to continue a viable, sustainable population," Carey said. "The long-term goal is to stabilize the wild as well and establish a habitat that will sustain the African penguins."

The penguins are especially vulnerable, she said, because airborne contamination can trigger a lung disease similar to tuberculosis. Already, they take salt supplements with their daily diet of kipling and lake and Peruvian smelt.

Scooter grabbed attention a few years ago when she had to wear a custom-made wetsuit until her feathers grew back. She and Robben will stay in a separate room from Bamm-Bamm and Dewey though the couples will stay in each other's sight.

Once they join the others, Petey might be sitting on her own clutch, as a nest is called. And there's a surrogate couple in the mix, brother-and-sister Chilly and Willy, who while unable to breed will nurture an egg slipped into their clutch.

"There's a different dynamic in the flock so we'll watch for any signs of aggression," Carey said. "But I see this as a wonderful opportunity to turn the exhibit into an interactive experience. If we build a nursery, visitors can see the chicks grow. Penguins in captivity can live into their 30s. And while in the wild, only one of the two eggs typically hatch, most of those laid in captivity survive. The association has recommended two breeding programs, which means eight babies. They could well become ambassadors of their species."



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