The Columbus Zoo has been active in breeding Humboldt penguins through the American Species Survival Plan, a national breeding program that encourages zoos to maintain genetic diversity within vulnerable and endangered species. The species is considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
For now, the zoo’s latest addition is being hand-reared by the animal care team, staff told CNN.
“Normally we absolutely love for parents to do the work raising chicks, because there’s no better parent than the actual penguins themselves,” said Joy Kotheimer, one of the penguin keepers caring for the chick. “However, the avian influenza has just thrown us for a loop.”
The avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N1) virus is very contagious among birds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although it poses a low risk to humans. Cases of avian flu have been rising in backyard flocks and wild birds across dozens of states in recent months.
Kotheimer explained that after moving the colony of 16 adult Humboldt penguins indoors, there wasn’t appropriate space for the penguins to nest. “The environment for raising a chick just wasn’t good,” she said.
When the chick first hatched, it had to be fed fish formula mixed by the zoo’s animal nutrition department every three hours. Now a month old, the infant has graduated to eating whole fish just three times a day. The little one is “a great eater,” Kotheimer noted, and currently weighs 3.5 pounds (it’ll reach 8 to 10 by adulthood).
Keepers are also making sure the little one gets to know what other penguins are like despite being raised by humans. Zoo staff show the chick a video they recorded of the adult Humboldt penguins on an iPad so it is exposed to penguin noises. “I don’t know what they’re saying — hopefully good things,” said Kotheimer.
“We try to spend time preening the feathers, doing what parents would do, interacting with it. It’s really to the age — where it’s like a toddler, where it’s starting to really be interested in things, textures, it looks at the numbers on the scale when we weigh it,” she said. “We’re starting to see its personality – or its penguinality.”
The chick will likely be introduced to the rest of the colony in another month, when its current coating of fluffy down is replaced by waterproof juvenile feathers. There, the youngster will need to practice swimming and learn “what’s acceptable in the penguin world,” according to Kotheimer.
The newest chick is the 35th Humboldt penguin the zoo has hatched since 1996, says Kotheimer.
The penguins are “highly affected” by fluctuations in the fish population, such as those caused by overfishing, around Chile and Peru, where they live in the wild, Kotheimer explained. “As we’re facing more challenges, we’re going to see their numbers be affected more,” she said.
The Humboldt penguins are not currently visible to viewers, but the zoo hopes to reevaluate the avian influenza situation in May and determine whether the birds can be safely moved back to their exhibit yards, said Kotheimer.