Inquiring Minds Want to Know, African Penguins Edition

Penguins are incredible animals. The fascinating facts about these flightless birds could fill pages. For all of those people who have been dying to know the answers to some of the mysteries of the African Penguin at Seneca Park Zoo, here are the most common questions we receive from guests.

How do you tell all of those birds apart?”

The simplest way to tell who’s who is that all of the penguins at the Zoo are banded using a special color-coded system. Males are banded on the left, females on the right, and offspring of pairs are banded using the same colors as their parents, the older chick banded on the left (until the sex can be determined at a later date). All keepers who train to be penguin keepers are required to memorize these bands so they can identify each bird.


Plumage can also be a helpful factor in determining who’s who. Juveniles (penguins younger than 18 months of age) have a dark gray plumage from head to toe. Adult penguins (older than 18 months) have the traditional black and white “tuxedo” plumage.

Keepers who have worked around the birds for a long time can also tell each penguin apart by certain physical characteristics such as beak size, height, unique markings, and even the way they walk!

Finally, each penguin has a spot pattern on their chest that is as unique to them as our fingerprints are to us! That spot pattern stays the same even after the penguin’s yearly molt. Some penguins only have three to four spots; others may have a dozen or more!

Why are they so small?

There are 17 different species of penguin found only in the southern hemisphere. The largest species, the emperor penguin, is just shy of 4 feet; the smallest is the little blue, or “fairy” penguin, which stands just over a foot in size. An African penguin is approximately 2ft tall and weighs between 5-9lbs. Most people are probably quite used to seeing the emperor penguin in movies and on television, therefore are a bit surprised to see a small species like the African penguin.

Why aren’t penguins aren’t out all the time in the winter?

While it’s true some penguins love the cold, the penguins here at the Zoo are native to the coast of South Africa, making them a temperate species of penguin. Believe it or not, most species of penguins live in temperate climates. A couple can even be found in tropical climates! The media does tend to focus on the penguins in Antarctica, probably because the landscape is so beautiful and because of the stark contrast with the black and white sea of penguins.

Our penguins typically stay in a heated room inside when the temperature falls below freezing. If there isn’t a foot of snow on the ground and it’s sunny out, we always allow our penguins the choice to stay in or go outside.

When the penguins aren’t outside, where are they?

Our penguins are quite spoiled! They have a large holding room, which is heated in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer. There is also a pool in their holding room as well as lots of environmental enrichment. This is where the penguins’ “nests” are as well. African penguins are burrow nesters, so we mimic that by using sky kennels lined with an absorbent recycled newspaper product. Each pair of penguins, and most singletons, have their own “nest” which they may inhabit for many years and are very protective over!

Why don’t the penguins at the Zoo swim very often?

This is by far the most frequently asked question by Zoo visitors. The answer is they absolutely do, just not out on habitat! The penguins have a small pool in their room that they all LOVE and swim in often. We do have 7-8 birds who swim regularly in the morning so guests who arrive early might just catch them during their swim!



How can penguins be endangered? When you see pictures of them, it seems like there are millions!

Four species of penguin are considered “endangered.” These are the White-flippered, the Erect crested, the Galapagos, and the African penguin. Five species are listed as “vulnerable,” two  as “near-threatened,” and six as “lower risk.” The lower risk is the species found furthest south.  The pictures we typically see of thousands of penguins in one place are of this species.

Did you know that by visiting Seneca Park Zoo, you are also helping African penguins? These small actions are helping to conserve this species. Thank you for your support!


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