Mika Yoshida, aviculturist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, calls out each time a Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) takes a small fish from her hand. Tango—who came from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—tips his head back and the slippery, three-inch capelin slides down his gullet. Mika’s assistant, Don, puts a check next to that penguin’s name on a chart. It’s their way of ensuring that each bird is getting enough to eat, and their daily vitamins.
Mika and her staff repeat these hand-feeding sessions four times per day in the Aquarium’s special exhibition, Hot Pink Flamingos: Stories of Hope in a Changing Sea. The exhibit is home to 10 Magellanic penguins: six are rescued birds from the Niteroi Zoo in Rio, and four others are on loan from the San Francisco Zoo.
“Pingo gets a fish!”
Tango, Dulce and Giselda were among the 700 birds brought to the Niteroi Zoo to be nursed back to health in 2008. Scientists believe that climate variations altered ocean currents and where penguins could find food, requiring them to travel farther from shore. There, younger and inexperienced birds were taken by strong currents and ended up in Brazil, thousands of miles away from their home. In addition to being exhausted, about 200 penguins were coated with oil. Other exhibit birds—Pingo, Cristiano and Rio—were stranded in 2009.
While the Hot Pink Flamingos exhibit was still in its planning stages, Guest Experience Opportunities Supervisor Simone Jones heard about the stranded birds. Fluent in Portuguese (the native language of Brazil), she helped the husbandry staff conduct exhaustive long-distance negotiations to bring the six penguins stateside.
Interestingly, the Rio birds are more accustomed to being handled than the four captive-born birds from the San Francisco Zoo, who are named Noodles, Patsy, Shim and Whatever. (No, we’re not playing “Who’s on First?” She really is named Whatever.) Mika attributes this to the fact that they had almost constant human interaction during their rehabilitation.
“Noodles gets a fish!”
The catchy penguin names aren’t just for the benefit of our Aquarists. Magellanic penguins, like the blackfooted penguins in our Splash Zone exhibit, are capable of learning their names and responding to simple instructions. This can be handy at feeding time and during health checks or moves.
Like many animals at the Aquarium, Magellanic penguins can also be “target trained.” Mika places a stick with a small colored buoy on the end in the water as a signal for a penguin to come over for a tasty snack. With time, the penguins may even learn to “porpoise” on cue, bobbing up and down in the water when a target is placed in the water. All these “educational enrichments” provide variety and help keep the birds stimulated and happy.
“Patsy gets a fish!”
There’s another reason for logging how much each penguin eats: a particularly ravenous bird might be getting ready to “molt”: the annual process of losing feathers and then growing a new coat. During this time they can gain 50 percent of their body weight. Then, once they’ve molted, they stop eating, and live off the added fat stores until their new coat grows back (two to four weeks).
Mika says that Magellanics also have some endearing traits. “Toward the end of the day, if they get sleepy, they’ll swim in their sleep in the water or on land,” she says. “It’s fun to watch—like a dog running in its sleep.
“They’re also super curious and will come to the window to check out visitors or look at toys that children are holding.”
Overall, says Mika, “They’re happy animals. They seem very calm and content.”
Learn more about Magellanic penguin conservation at Penguin Sentinels.