The Hatch of 2020

When the Dan and Vi McKinney Penguin Habitat opened in Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks three years ago, if you had asked me to predict where we would be today, I never would have guessed. At that time, we had just finished construction on the largest saltwater penguin pool in the US, and our small colony of 20 birds (mostly youngsters still in their blue plumage) were finishing their quarantine period. Now, 3 years later, our colony has grown to 36 birds; and those “little blue youngsters” have reached maturity and have begun creating the first generation of hatches here in San Diego.

We opened our nest boxes for the season in August of 2019. During the breeding season, penguins form pairs—and sometimes break up and re-form again. That’s only the first decision they have to make. Next, they’ll choose a nest, decide they don’t want that one, and take the one next door. Then they decide to move back to the first one…or a different one.

We have 14 nest boxes available to the group, and a few of those are highly prized, resulting in competition among the birds (just like in their native habitat). There is more drama in the colony than on reality TV! Only the heartiest boys will get a prime nesting spot.

After the eggs are laid and about 10 days old, we candle them—shining a bright light through the shell to see the structures inside, to determine fertility. Earlier this year, we were excited to see that two eggs (under different pairs) were showing great development at that point. We kept our fingers crossed that the parents would incubate each egg as they should and a healthy chick would emerge from the shell.

One of the eggs belonged to Scott and Tinka, a newer pair with no breeding history. The other egg was under Jack and Lori, another pair with no breeding experience (fun fact: Lori and Tinka are sisters!). All four of these birds were still in their juvenile plumage when they arrived in San Diego. Scott and Tinka proved themselves to be great parents, dividing duties as if they had read the textbook on it. Sadly, Jack and Lori didn’t check out that same book…

With video monitors in all of the nest boxes, we are able to see exactly what is happening with eggs or chicks without having to disturb the pairs. Scott and Tinka’s egg hatched right on time, and we watched the parents do an excellent job the first few days. Jack and Lori’s egg hatched four days later, and we were not comfortable with what we were seeing. Those first days are very important—they tell us how attentive the parents are or if only one parent is doing all of the work. After 24 hours of observation, the decision was made to remove the second chick from Jack and Lori, and place it for fostering with an experienced pair, Danny and Malloy. They did a terrific job raising Doug as first-time parents last season. Danny and Malloy accepted the chick quickly and easily, and did an outstanding job raising him.

When the chicks were 19 and 22 days old, we removed them from the parents (which we do with all of the chicks we raise) so they would become comfortable around people, and learn to hand-feed from us. It took a few days for them to understand that they would now be getting fish pieces fed through our fingers, and we would not be regurgitating fish to them ourselves (whew!). They were smart little babies and figured out pretty quickly how the new feeding system would work. They both had great appetites and grew quickly to their full adult size.

Just a bit shy of three months old, they are self-sufficient, independent kids. They spend their days enjoying their pool and practicing their swimming skills. They have almost lost the last tiny tufts of down on their heads and will be ready to meet the rest of the colony in the coming days.

World Penguin Day is Saturday, April 25, 2020. Yet, there’s so much to discover about these birds that we’re having a virtual celebration from April 24 to 26. Visit this web page of activities, and have fun joining us in honoring penguins.

Debbie Denton is an animal care specialist at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Pitching in to Save Penguins.