Inquiring Minds Want to Know, African Penguins Edition

oil spillPenguins are incredible animals. The fascinating facts about these flightless birds could fill pages. But I have been a penguin keeper for almost 18 years, and most visitors to Seneca Park Zoo ask several of the same great questions. This blog is in honor of 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!

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!

FamilyWhy 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 on exhibit! The penguins have a small pool in their holding room that they all LOVE and swim in often!

Over the years we have made many attempts to get the birds to use their exhibit pool instead of the holding room pool, and about six birds will swim for fish. We have attempted to feed only in the water, used hip waders and wet suits to join them in the water, taken away access to their small pool, and a few years back, actually made some major renovations to the exhibit incorporating ideas from zoos where the penguins actually swim! Unfortunately, we still don’t have a colony of exhibit-swimming penguins.

In nature, penguins do not swim for recreation. They swim out of necessity; to eat and to keep their plumage (feathers) in good shape. We feed on land to make sure we get a good look at each penguin daily, and the inside pool serves as an adequate place to keep their feather quality in tip-top shape. In fact, when we took away access to the inside holding pool, our penguins simply stopped swimming and this resulted in some cases of poor plumage. Animal health is top priority, so we immediately gave the birds access back to their little pool.

Finally, our penguins spend approximately six hours per day on exhibit. This means 18 hours is spent in their holding room, which is a very desirable place for them. It’s entirely possible that they just choose to swim in the environment that is most comfortable and familiar.

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.

Boulders Beach

African penguins were added to the Endangered Species list in June of 2010. The African penguin  is listed as such due to the very rapid decline of the species resulting from competition with the commercial fisheries for food as well as shifts in prey population. Oil spills also account for a large percentage of the fatalities of adult African penguins. Because they live in such a condensed range, one oil spill could have a catastrophic effect on the total population and breeding success of the African penguin.

What can I do to help African penguins?

The South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) has been the leader in African penguin conservation since the late 60s. SANCCOB is a wonderful organization to donate to. They have a very user-friendly website that describes all of the conservation initiatives in which they are involved.

Did you know that by visiting Seneca Park Zoo, you are also helping African penguins? Last year, Zoo visitors donated nearly $14,000 by rounding up their admissions purchases and making other small donations.

These small actions are helping to conserve this species in the wild. Thank you for your support!

If you want to learn more about African penguins, check out Spring Break Programslater this month.


–Kara Masaschi, Zoo Keeper


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