Audubon penguin colony gains 3 chicks

A trio of young African Blackfooted penguins that splashed into the climate-controlled penguin tank at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas represented the latest successful in-house incubation at the institution as part of an ongoing effort to save the endangered bird from extinction.

Peewee, Fuzzy and Sassafras joined 31 other African Blackfooted birds in the penguin colony on Friday, said Audubon senior aviculturist Darwin Long. They were hatched in June.

Their arrival was another notable achievement in the aquarium’s continuing participation in a national program of the American Zoological Association’s Species Survival Plan, which emphasizes responsible breeding of the flightless birds.

The penguin colony also includes three southern rockhoppers, a type of small penguin with a short thick bill and a yellow crest.

The Blackfooted penguins have been listed on endangered species watch-lists since 2010, Long said, who added that without intervention from institutions such as Audubon, extinction of the birds could occur within 30 to 60 years.

Aquariums from Boston to Idaho and elsewhere participate in the captivity-breeding program. “We are a safety net” for animals facing the prospect of extinction, Long said.

The Audubon penguin breeding program already had incubated and hatched three of the Blackfooted penguins earlier this year. The new batch gave the not-for-profit aquarium its best year for breeding the birds since the aquarium opened in 1990.

There’s more on the way, too, Long hinted. The aquarium has successfully hatched 49 Blackfooted penguins since 1990, “and there are a few more surprises in the incubator that are looking really good.”

Long explained that the Species Survival Plan is designed to maximize genetic diversity among the birds. Penguins will be shipped from aquarium to aquarium to ensure a healthy stock, he said.

“You don’t want any over-represented genetics,” he said, “or inbreeding, or too many birds from one family on hand.”

Long said there are currently about 23,000 breeding pairs of the birds worldwide, compared to 120,000 pairs known to exist less than 100 years ago. Their decline, he said, “continues to accelerate alarmingly.”

The main culprit in the birds’ downfall has been the plummeting Cape anchovy fishery in southern African waters, which comprises 78 percent of the flightless birds’ diet, Long said.

Most of the rest of the birds’ diet is made up of herring. The captive birds are fed capelin at the aquarium, a less oily and fatty fish than their natural prey.

Overfishing of the anchovies has meant the penguins have to travel farther and farther to find their preferred prey. Males and females split nest-sitting labors, Long explained, but the nest-sitter will depart if its partner hasn’t returned with food within two or three days.

“The abandonment of eggs and chicks is causing the population to shrink,” Long said.

Guano-farming and oil spills have also taken a toll on the birds. The nitrogen-rich guano is used for fertilizer and making explosives, but in the process of mining the guano for commercial uses, nests and eggs are often destroyed, Long said.

The New Orleans penguins have it comparatively easy in their day-to-day life at the aquarium. They live in a tank filled with hand-mixed salt water and spend their time courting and cavorting in the water and atop their gunite rocks. The water temperature is kept at 56 degrees Fahrenheit, and the air is filtered to remove mold and mildew.

The birds, Long said, “exhibit a wide range of sociability.”

Those that have been hand-reared, he said, are used to being with people and can be handled. “Others will attack humans that try to pick them up.”

Long pointed to two elder penguins in the tank and proudly noted that the 30-something couple Ernie and Fannie had hatched 12 chicks since moving to New Orleans from California.

One curiosity in the breeding program — wherein the eggs are incubated away from their parents — is that the parents don’t actually know who their own children are.

In nature, penguin parents get to know their offspring by a distinctive voice-chirp a chick emits while still in the shell.

“The parents have never heard them,” Long said of chicks hatched through the incubation process. “Mom, dad and the chick can stand next to each other and not know that they are related.”

To encourage breeding, Long said, the aquarium has set up a “special hospitality suite” for the birds in another part of the facility.

Privacy is assured, he said, and a mood is established to encourage amorous activities.

“We put on the Barry White and let them bond,” Long said with a laugh.