With the hustle and bustle of the holidays behind us, most of us are finding time to finally kick back, relax, and maybe play with some of our Christmas presents or work on our new years resolutions. But here at the SeaWorld San Antonio Penguin Encounter, things are anything but relaxing! The months of December, January, and February are some of the busiest months for aviculturists, because these are the months that the majority of the penguin chicks hatch and grow up.
We have had a successful breeding season so far, with new gentoo, rock hopper, and chinstrap penguin chicks joining the “waddle” (that’s what you call a group of penguins on land - in water, they are referred to as a “raft.”) We are especially excited about our chinstrap chicks (see below) - only a handful of zoos across the globe breed chinstraps, and we’ve hatched nine this year (more than any other year at our park)! The majority of our penguin chicks hatch out in the penguin habitat under their parents, or even foster parents. We have quite a few experienced, excellent penguin parents, and watching them build their nests, lay their eggs and raise their chicks is one of the highlights of my career. We also utilize several incubators to artificially incubate eggs, and will hand-raise any chicks that hatch out of them. If you were at the Penguin Encounter in December, you may have seen a few of our hand-raised chicks resting in our new “Polar Nursery.”
Why, you may ask, do we need incubators if we have excellent penguin parents? The truth is, though most penguins lay two eggs, they are usually successful in raising only one chick. In fact, rock hopper penguins often don’t even attempt to incubate their first, or “alpha” egg, and will push it to the side once their second, or “beta” egg is laid. By allowing the parents to keep one egg and placing the other egg into an incubator, we have been able to increase the amount of chicks successfully hatched out. We will also “candle” all the eggs several times during the incubation period by holding them against a bright light to determine fertility. If we find an egg under a parent that is infertile we will then replace it with their other egg from the incubator. If their other egg is infertile as well we will give them a fertile egg from the incubator, even occasionally from a different species, and they will serve as foster parents. Confused yet? It can be complicated, but utilizing foster parents has been very successful for us. The reason we do all this is because nature always does best - incubators are useful, and hand-raising can produce healthy chicks, but nothing beats the tender loving care of a penguin mom and dad!
As you can see from the photos, our chicks are still quite small, but they do grow rapidly. By the time the park re-opens in spring, the majority of our chicks will be visible in our “chick corral,” which is basically a big acrylic playpen that keeps playful, active penguin chicks safe on dry land - they won’t be ready to swim until they “fledge,” or lose their fluffy chick down and grown in their adult feathers. So in 2011, make a resolution to add a little more “cute” into your life, and come by the penguin encounter to watch our penguin chicks play!