African penguins flock around boulders on the aptly named Boulders Beach

Happy World Penguin Day!

April 25, 2018 is World Penguin Day! 

Look closely at the image above: those are indeed beach penguins. 

African penguins make their home on the sunny sands of South Africa, not on snow and ice. Sadly, these dapper dawdlers are endangered. 

Once one of southern Africa’s most abundant seabirds, the pint-sized African penguin has plummeted from an estimated 1 million breeding pairs to only about 25,000 breeding pairs today. The decline is largely due to the commercial harvesting of the birds’ eggs for food and their guano to sell as fertilizer. These practices ceased toward the end of the 20th century, but the damage was done. To help keep the African penguin (and other seabird) populations afloat, we work with a local organization to rescue, rehabilitate, and release ill, injured, abandoned, and oiled seabirds back into their habitat.

An African penguin gives the camera side-eye from tall grases

As part of San Diego Zoo Global’s commitment to lead the fight against extinction, animal care staff from our bird department spent most of last November in South Africa helping these rehabilitation efforts. “Rehabilitating African penguins takes concentrated, hands-on care, and we put in a lot of long days,” said Joop (pronounced YO-pea) Kuhn, San Diego Zoo animal care manager.

“The work of saving African penguins is critical to the survival of the species, but it’s also important to ensure a healthy ecosystem.” He explained that the birds’ all-important guano is nitrogen-rich and helps other aquatic marine life grow. It is also the ideal substrate for penguin nests on the rocky, unforgiving shorelines. “Bird guano is the perfect insulator for the penguin eggs, protecting them from heat and predators,” explained Ann Knutson, senior keeper at the Zoo, who went to South Africa. “It also repels ticks and other harmful insects from the birds.”

At just over 2 feet tall and weighing 7 to 11 pounds, these flightless birds nest in colonies on the southwestern coast of Africa, as well as 24 rocky islands between Namibia and Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It is the only penguin species native to Africa, and its presence gave rise to the name Penguin Islands. These birds feed primarily on shoaling pelagic fish like anchovies, sardines, horse mackerel, and round herrings, which they catch by swimming swiftly underwater and nab in their pliers-strong beaks.

Unfortunately, overfishing of these food supplies has also contributed to the African penguin's decline.

San Diego Zoo Global staff release rehabilitated African penguins back into their home water

The African penguin is also threatened by oil spills and other pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change (altering the ocean temperature and food availability). A more unusual hazard is the African penguin’s penchant for laying eggs twice a year, with the second clutch coinciding with the parents molting for one to two weeks, which renders them unable to hunt fish in the ocean and feed their chicks (or themselves).

Staff from San Diego Zoo Global and our partners in South Africa work together to monitor the penguins and the nests, and rescue any birds in distress. These eggs and chicks often require intense intervention to survive, but upon recovery, they will be returned to their natal colony.

San Diego Zoo Global staff, including Joop Kuhn on far right, hold penguin chicks

As the chicks grow and regain strength, they graduate to a pre-release pen. “They must be at a suitable weight, free of medicinal restrictions, and have developed their waterproof feathers,” said Joop. The birds get an hour-long swim in a pool, and their waterproofing is assessed, as it will be critical out in the ocean. Each bird gets a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag, so that staff can monitor it after release. Fortunately, the African penguin has a fidelity to colony living—safety in numbers—so released birds are welcomed into the group.

On Thursdays, release penguins are driven two hours to Stony Point Nature Reserve or Boulders Beach, where they are set free on the shoreline and waddle into the sea. “I was impressed with the dedication of the staff and volunteers to do the hard work it takes to rehabilitate and release these birds,” said Joop. “Not everyone can do it, but those who are doing it are making a huge positive difference for this species.”

When you donate to San Diego Zoo Global, you're on the team making a difference for endangered animals like the African penguin!