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July 09, 2013

And Chick Makes Three: A New Rockhopper Penguin


If you ever wanted a window into rockhopper penguin family life, all you have to do is stand front and center at the penguin habitat in the Abbott Oceanarium’s Polar Play Zone to see a parental pair nurturing their nearly-month-old chick.

They’re doing a great job, according to Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of animal care and training. “It’s gaining between 40 and 50 grams a day,” he says, on a protein-rich fishy gruel that mom and dad take turns regurgitating into its waiting, gaping mouth. The little rockhopper has leaped from 75 grams when it hatched June 12 to 1019 grams at its evening weighing on July 7.

And other than twice-daily weighings, that’s all the care that Shedd’s penguin team has had to give the chick. “It’s being done entirely by the parents,” says Ken. “As we do each time we have a chick, we prepared food supplements, in case during the weighings we saw that it wasn’t gaining or it was losing weight, but we haven’t had to do any extra feedings. All we’ve had to do is track its weight.”

Penguin parents share equally in the care of their chick in alternating shifts. Ken notes that the mother, who has already raised two chicks, is the better feeder. “Dad isn’t quite as good of a feeder, but he’s a good sitter,” a crucial role in keeping the sparsely feathered newborn warm. “Although now that the chick is bigger, neither of them really sits on it. They sit next to it.”

With large clawed feet and a pear shape, the chick is pretty good at sitting itself. The exaggerated proportions help the chick keep its balance during feeding sessions, when it tilts its head back to create a chute straight to its tummy.

Receiving good parental care, eating and gaining weight are just a few of the milestones the chick must pass. Soon it will begin wandering away from the nest, exploring it environs and occasionally getting in the way of other rockhoppers and the Magellanic penguins before its parents retrieve it.

“Then, somewhere around the 75- to 90-day mark,” says Ken, “the parents will suddenly quit feeding it. They leave the nest, they leave the chick. It’s one of those amazing insights into parental behavior in nature. So, during those last few weeks before they usually quit feeding the chick, we start feeding it, because we have to teach it to take food from us.”

By this time, the penguin chick has its waterproof first-year plumage, and the parents may get in the one and only swimming lesson before pulling up stakes. “But sometimes the chick has to figure it out for itself,” Ken says. “In the wild, the chick will take the plunge eventually because that’s where the food is. But because we’re feeding it, there’s no incentive to get in the water. We’ve had to help chicks a few times. But they realize that water’s a good thing.”

So is watching penguins. “Now that the chick is big and the parents don’t sit on it all the time, you can see it pretty well,” says Ken. But visit soon if you want to see a downy chick. Once it has its signature black-and-white feathering, however, you’ll still be able to easily identify this newest rockhopper because it won’t get its yellow head plumes until it’s a year old. Around that time, Shedd’s veterinary team will take a blood sample for the genetic test to reveal whether the young penguin is a male or a female. And within a few years, this baby could be starting its own family.

Karen Furnweger, web editor


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Welcome to the world, little rockhopper! Congratulations to the Shedd Aquarium, too!

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