The first blackfooted penguin chick ever to be born on exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is going to grooming school. After a very successful three weeks on exhibit, the chick went behind the scenes January 29 for its own safety, and to acclimate to people.
“The parents Umngane and Dassen have done a great job feeding and caring for the chick,” says Aimee Greenebaum, associate curator of aviculture. Since January 10, the chick has gone from 4 to almost 40 ounces.
Despite the parents’ doting, things were no longer safe for the chick on exhibit. “A young chick can’t swim, and it might fall in the water and be unable to get out,” says Aimee. “And as it starts to wander, other birds might become aggressive toward it. They tend to be very curious, and they can investigate by biting.”
There’s another important reason that the chick was separated from its parents and moved off exhibit: under the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan, the chick has been designated as an “education bird,” to help raise awareness of the threats penguins face in the wild. As such, it needs to be comfortable around people and on exhibit.
“It needs to get used to being handled,” says Aimee. “To accomplish that, we need to be the ones feeding and caring for the chick—and the parents just won’t let us do that.”
The parents and chick had to be separated but “they get over it quickly,” says Aimee. “It’s out of sight, out of mind. Parents frequently lose chicks in the wild, and they’re genetically wired to move on.”
Life Behind the Scenes
The first order of business behind the scenes: get the chick accustomed to solid food (fish), instead of the regurgitated meals served up by Umngane and Dassen. “The transition to solid food takes a while,” says Aimee.
The aviculture team will feed the chick three to four times per day. They’ll also keep it very warm, in a small enclosure. “As it continues to grow, we’ll put it in a larger and larger holding area, and let it get used to the ambient temperature,” says Aimee. “We’ll also expose it to shallow water, so it can learn to swim. We want to ensure it can get in and out easily.
“Eventually we’ll spend more and more time with the chick, and start to touch and pick it up. We anticipate it will get very comfortable with us quite quickly.”
The Transition Back on Exhibit
At about 80 days (late March or early April) the chick will lose its downy feathers and have grown a waterproof coat. This is also the normal age for a chick to fledge (leave the nest without its parents). At this point, the chick will be gradually re-introduced to the exhibit.
“We’ll watch to ensure it’s not being picked on, and that it can safely swim and navigate the exhibit,” says Aimee. “This will happen under constant supervision.”
Although it will be a while until you can see the chick on exhibit again, we’ll be sure to keep you updated with photos and videos from behind the scenes.
“We’re really excited,” says Aimee. “We’ve enjoyed seeing the chick grow up—it’s changed dramatically every day, and it’s very cute. And of course, we appreciate the opportunity this bird is giving us. Everyone loves babies, and our hope is that it will inspire people to help penguins in the wild.”