Assistant lead bird keeper Kristin Dvorak traveled to South Africa to rehabilitate African penguin chicks abandoned by their molting parents.
A Keeper Cares for African Penguin Chicks in South Africa
While the zoo and its bird experts strive to ensure that parents, and not humans, care for their chicks, it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve had the opportunity as assistant lead keeper to hand-raise many species of birds, most recently the zoo’s first-ever Chilean flamingo chicks.
Those experiences proved extremely beneficial. Because it’s also what I did for two weeks in late November–early December 2015, when I went to South Africa to care for African penguin chicks.
I made the journey as Lincoln Park Zoo’s 2015 recipient of the Feay Earthwatch Grant. The grant program, generously funded by zoo donors Mary and Bruce Feay, helps Lincoln Park Zoo animal-care staff take part in annual field research expeditions around the world. Through it I was able to participate in the international volunteer program run by the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Seabirds (SANCCOB) in Table View, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa.
SANCCOB is a non-profit conservation center dedicated to seabird rehabilitation, with a large focus on the endangered African penguin species. I went there to gain hands-on experience hand-raising African penguin chicks and see the amount of work involved in rescuing, rehabilitating and caring for these chicks.
Four African penguin chicks, rehabilitated at SANCCOB, explore coastal habitat at South Africa’s Stony Point Penguin Colony moments after their release back into the wild.
The experience also gave me the opportunity to witness some of the challenges this species faces in its native habitat along the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. There are approximately 50,000 African penguins left in the wild—a struggling population reeling from a catastrophic 70 percent decline over the past 10 years. The decline is related to human disturbance, egg collection, oil spills, commercial collection of guano (used by penguins to build burrows for nests) and a decrease in the food supply caused by several factors, including overfishing by commercial fisheries and climate change. Lincoln Park Zoo works with other Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions to keep this species SAFE through shared conservation efforts such as the African Penguin Species Survival Plan (SSP)®.
Lincoln Park Zoo will be offering a home to African penguins when the Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove opens later this year. The exhibit will be home to a breeding colony and feature state-of-the-art animal-care amenities and an immersive guest experience. A dozen nest-box alcoves will be situated on a sandy, rocky beach next to a pool for swimming and diving. An extensive underwater-viewing window and a penguin encounter area will give guests up-close views of these remarkable birds and their behaviors and group dynamics. At the new exhibit I’ll be able to apply what I learned during my field-site work in many ways. Besides caring for the zoo’s colony, I’ll be able to share with visitors and staff the challenges I personally saw this species face in the wild.
SANCCOB volunteers construct an enclosure for African penguin chicks. Each pen holds 25–30 chicks.
This future work with penguins was on my mind as I made the long journey to South Africa. I flew from Chicago to London to Cape Town, which took two days. There was no time for sightseeing—I began work the day after I arrived!
By 7:45 a.m. that first day everyone was to be in uniform, which consisted of oil slicks (mid-weight rubber coveralls) that went over my dry-wicking pants and T-shirt, two neoprene arm guards and one glove for my left hand. This glove provided protection from biting chicks while also allowing my other hand to remain “fish-free” while feeding the chicks. This is important because fish oils can negatively affect the chicks’ feathers. At 8 a.m. I met with staff and other volunteers to learn which area I’d be working in, who would be my supervisor for the day and anything deviating from the norm in that area. I spent that morning washing dishes and doing a lot of laundry.
Next came my orientation, which involved watching a video about the center and taking a tour of its facilities. Lunch followed, and then I went to meet the chicks I’d be working with the remainder of my time. The first time I saw all these chicks I was amazed by how many were already at the facility—and even more amazed at how loud they were!
Chicks huddle while waiting for their next feeding. Commonly called “jackass penguins” for their donkey-like braying, African penguins are not quiet when communicating their needs.
My assigned area housed about 100–130 African penguin chicks that were 8–10 weeks old. These chicks were at the center because they’d been abandoned by their molting parents. When adult penguins molt they are no longer waterproof, and therefore cannot swim to get fish to feed their chicks. For that reason it’s unusual for penguins to molt when they are raising chicks. However, the species’ breeding season is changing due to environmental shifts caused by climate change. If not for the intervention of SANCCOB and partners such as CapeNature, these chicks would not survive. Park service staff with CapeNature—a public agency managing nature conservation areas and programs in the Western Cape region—help by monitoring nest sites and abandoned chicks. If there are abandoned chicks, SANCCOB is notified, and chicks are transported to the facility for hand-rearing.
SANCCOB staff and volunteers rescued and rehabilitated nearly 300 chicks from October–January, necessitating efficient exam and management processes.
Here is what a typical day was like for me: At 8 a.m., I went to my area and chose a pen to work in. Each pen contained about 25–30 chicks. I picked up each chick, checked its band number to see if it needed medication and restrained it while feeding it Darrow’s water (water containing nutritious supplements).
I had to finish this process by 9 a.m. so the chicks could have a one-hour break between feedings. During that time, I'd take any chicks with respiratory issues to a nebulization chamber, in which they’d remain for no longer than seven minutes, or clean their pen while another volunteer monitored the nebulizing treatment. Chicks come to SANCCOB due to a variety of conditions, including abandonment, poor plumage, low weight and respiratory health issues.
Chicks, who’d normally be fed regurgitated fish by their parents, receive a nutrient-rich fish slurry through a syringe-like dispenser connected to a tube.
At 9:40 a.m., I was either preparing fish and vitamins or giving some chicks the chance to go swimming in a small on-site pool. Starting at 10 a.m., all chicks were fed their fish and vitamins, and I recorded the amount of fish each chick ate. Then I took a quick break to work on individual records for each chick under my care. At noon, I fed fish slurry (puréed sardines, water and vitamins) to the chicks, continued working on their records and took a quick lunch break.
The afternoon regimen was similar. At 1:40 p.m., I prepared fish for a 2 p.m. feeding. After feeding each chick, I applied a mosquito repellant ointment to the top of its head and put mosquito repellants throughout the area. These extra precautions were taken because African penguins are susceptible to malaria.
Dvorak helps penguin chicks into an indoor pool for a strength-building swim during their rehabilitation at SANCCOB.
From 3–3:45 p.m. we got medications ready for the 4 p.m. feeding, when I gave water and medication (if needed) to the chicks. The last feeding of the day—a fish-slurry mixture—took place at 5 p.m. Afterwards, we cleaned our supplies and finished any incomplete records. I was usually done with work between 5:45–6 p.m.
Most days were basically the same as described above. But on Thanksgiving Day I was especially thankful for one experience in particular. We had a special opportunity to see some of the rescued birds returned to the wild. We released nine African penguins and two cormorants. This took place with seven volunteers, including our driver, who drove us two hours to Betty’s Bay, site of the Stony Point Penguin Colony, one of only three land-based African penguin colonies. Two are in South Africa; one is in Namibia.
We carried cardboard boxes containing our birds to a ramp near the ocean, placed the boxes on their sides and opened them so the birds could walk out. Initially, the penguins did not want to go into the ocean, but after a little bit of encouragement they walked in and began swimming.
On Thanksgiving Day, Dvorak and fellow volunteers released nine penguins and two cormorants back into the wild.
Even though I hadn’t worked with the penguins being released that day, I knew the staff’s tireless efforts had paid off. It was incredible to see these once weak chicks strong enough to swim in the ocean and join the rest of the penguins at the colony.
After the release, I was able to look at the colony from an adjacent boardwalk. I had to keep reminding myself I was seeing these penguins in the wild and wasn’t at a zoo—the only place I had previously ever seen penguins. The boardwalk, open to the public, is a big tourist destination. It was remarkable to see how close visitors could get to the penguins to observe them swimming, walking and resting in their natural habitat. Park service staff, who closely supervise the colony, were available for questions. Informative signage provided further education about the penguins. I am optimistic this special experience will help in conserving these endangered birds.
Released African penguin chicks reacquaint themselves with their natural aquatic home at Stony Point Penguin Colony.
Most of the penguin colony’s nest sites looked like they’d been cut from plastic barrels, with holes added on the sides for air circulation. One of the challenges facing the species’ wild population is insufficient nest sites. Guano harvesting in several areas has reduced appropriate nest sites. Artifical nest sites have been created to replicate natural nests in the wild. Several methods have been tried to see which work best. Barrels provide a similar structure to a burrow excavated naturally. They’re also easy, quick and cheap to construct. Rocks and shrubs are an option too.
At the zoo’s Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove we’ll have nesting burrows a little different from those I saw in the wild. Tunnels will connect the exhibit to a nest-box room where crates will serve as burrows for the penguin pairs. I’m excited about the new exhibit and the modern tools it will give us to care for and breed this endangered species. I’m also hopeful that my experience at SANCCOB will be beneficial to our penguin colony. If we’re lucky enough to have chicks, I’m sure my newly acquired skills will be an asset.