This summer, All My Penguins, a web series chronicling the lives of the colony of endangered African penguins at Lincoln Park Zoo, is back with more drama, romance, and penguins (well…one more penguin) than ever! Stay tuned as we dive deep into the complex and covert dynamics of the cozy colony!
Did you know that one of the 22 full-time nutritionists within the 230-member Association of Zoos and Aquariums works at Lincoln Park Zoo?
Ask any penguin keeper or the staff at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Nutrition Center and they’ll tell you the same thing: African penguins are picky. The members of the colony are quick to turn up their beaks at fish they don’t fancy.
Their food preferences not only vary individual to individual, but ebb and flow as a colony, too. Penguin keepers work closely with the zoo’s Nutrition Center to create diets for each individual penguin to ensure that they’re healthy and have ideal body conditions. If you thought meal prepping for your week was hard, imagine meal prepping for 16 penguins with different preferences and dietary needs (not to mention nearly 200 other species at the zoo)! For Nutrition Center Manager Karina Carbo-Johnson, this is just a slice of life in her role at the zoo. She works with Animal Care staff and zoo veterinarians to assess and formulate diet plans for each animal at the zoo annually.
Let’s Peek at Some of the Picky Penguin Preferences That She and the Keepers Navigate
Over the winter, Mandela’s fish preferences flopped. After he turned down fish after fish, vigilant keepers began to realize that fish size was a factor for Mandela. Now, he only goes for the largest herring he can get. Preston also prefers larger fish, but keepers report that Mandela gulps down his big fish with flare, apparently having no regard for the adage “don’t play with your food.”
Ever notice an odd item, like a pool toy, bubbles, or even the light from a laser pointer, at Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove? These are enrichment items that keepers use to help elicit natural African penguin behaviors, like hunting and diving.
Like many Chicagoans, Phil felt the winter. With shorter days and dropping temperatures, Phil chose to spend more time behind the scenes in nest niches and less time swimming in the outdoor pool, packing on a few grams. After a veterinary exam determined that his thyroid activity was normal, keepers began working to increase Phil’s activity with various enrichment items and collaborating with the Nutrition Center to provide Phil with low-fat fish, like capelin and herring. Both teams will continue to monitor his weight and body condition, making animal management adjustments as necessary.
Download the Seafood Watch app to ensure that your catch of the day, or even favorite restaurant, is African-penguin friendly!
Finally, there’s Oliver, who still prefers regurgitated fish from his parents (who doesn’t?). Though he’s showing more interest in taking whole fish from the keepers, they have yet to observe him eating one on his own. His body condition and weight are healthy, so Carbo-Johnson says that she and the keepers are monitoring Oliver’s eating habits, hopeful to observe “baby’s first sardine” in the near future.
So, What’s the Catch of the Day at Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove?
You probably smelt it from a mile away. It ranges from smelt, to capelin, to herring, to sardines—and it’s always sustainably sourced. Carbo-Johnson uses Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to source sustainable fish for the zoo’s animals so that Lincoln Park Zoo doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment for humans and wildlife alike. After all, one of the contributing factors to the decline of African penguins in the wild is unsustainable fishing practices and overfishing.
Carbo-Johnson orders about 17, 500 pounds of fish for the African penguins per year. This comes out to about 15 pounds consumed per day by the zoo’s African penguin colony (one pound per penguin per day).
Feeding time at penguin cove is like a symphony of flippers, beaks, and brays, with a keeper conductor. Keepers have to know which fish is which and who’s getting what when the black-and-white birds belly up to their buckets! Want to see the seafood frenzy for yourself? Come to Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove in the afternoon to observe a feed!
African penguins are also called “jackass penguins” due to the braying calls they make.
No one knows the penguins’ preferences and the colony dynamics as well as penguin keepers do. Tune in next time during National Zoo Keeper Week as we discuss the important and strong relationships between African penguins and their keepers!