Friday, August 14, 2009

Update from Penguins' Rock

Photo: A macaroni penguin stops by to take a look at Pebbles and her chick.

After a couple of days off, it was fun to return to work and hear the news about Zeus and Pebbles' new chick. The gentoo baby hatched on Sunday while aviculturist Loribeth Aldrich was on duty. It’s often a bit difficult to hear tiny peeping sounds over the raucous penguin calls at the Tennessee Aquarium, but Aldrich and the other penguin keepers had been keeping eyes and ears trained on Zeus and Pebbles’ nest for several days. “These two gentoos are not as keeper friendly and prefer that we keep our distance. So it has been a bit more challenging to get glimpses of this new gentoo chick,” said Aldrich. This latest addition to “Penguins’ Rock” was born right in the middle of the hatching timeframe.

There is always concern for newborn birds, perhaps more so with penguins because they face additional challenges of chilly air and must remain out of cold water. The penguin parents must be diligent in several ways. They must keep the baby warm and well-fed, safe from other curious penguins all while caring for a fragile life within a nest of angular rocks. Parents like Paulie and Chaos, the macaroni pair that produced the first chick at the Tennessee Aquarium, appeared to be naturals. We marveled at the way they shared duties incubating, and then caring for their offspring. And some people, like me, were amazed at how quickly a tiny bird became a rather large macaroni chick.

Paulie and Chaos are an example of the best-case scenario. The parents took care of their baby without staff intervention. This helps the parents develop their parental instincts, helps ensure the baby will not become too imprinted on people and allowed the chick and parents to remain with the rest of the colony.

But penguin parenting doesn’t always occur in such a textbook manner.

Senior aviculturist Amy Graves explained that even though gentoos Bug and Big T had been attentive in some ways to their chick, they had not been feeding the baby on a regular basis. So Aquarium staffers have had to supplement the feeding schedule with “penguin milkshakes” served in a variety of ways. “We created a formula that is a mixture of krill, capelin and different vitamins that are all blended together to a nice consistency,” Graves said. “At first, we fed this formula to the chick without anything else. But as it got a bit larger, we would then dip a small fish, either a silverside or capelin, into the milkshake and feed that to the chick.” Keepers had to step in and supplement Bug & Big T’s feedings up to three times daily. Sometimes the parents would feed the chick, but mostly it was Aquarium staff working to keep the tiny bird’s weight up.

Throughout the past few weeks, Graves and other Aquarium staff members have been consulting outside penguin experts who have been following the macaroni chick’s progress and this gentoo chick’s struggles.

When I answered the phone this morning, I could hear the sadness in Amy Grave’s voice immediately. She had called to inform me about the loss of Bug & Big T’s chick. It’s difficult news to hear, especially when you know how dedicated the penguin keepers and volunteers are when it comes to providing the highest level of care to these captivating animals.

Kevin Calhoon, the Aquarium’s assistant curator of forests, said that this might not be just a case of poor parental instincts. Ironically, their lackluster feedings could indicate that Bug & Big T picked up on signals about this chick’s health that we are unaware of. “Many bird species will simply stop feeding their young if everything isn’t ‘just right’ with the baby,” Calhoon explained.

Zeus and Pebble’s were seen feeding the newest gentoo chick this morning and Graves says they are very protective of their baby. If Zeus and Pebble’s turn out to be as diligent as Paulie and Chaos, we should see this gentoo chick grow quickly in the coming days.

The sadness of today’s news is tempered by the joy of watching guests inside “Penguins’ Rock.”

Today, Aquarium visitors will be amazed by the baby macaroni born on June 18th . That chick is now seen occasionally gobbling down fish from a feed pan without assistance from Chaos and Paulie. Guests are also noticing some other changes in this bird’s appearance. “If you take a good close look at its chest and flippers, it looks like it’s had a haircut,” said Graves. “That’s caused by the swimming feathers coming in and pushing out the soft, little downy feathers.” The baby macaroni is also growing stubby, bristly tail feathers. And Graves says this bird may have all of its handsome black and white plumage in the next two weeks. “Once that happens, the baby macaroni will be ready to start swimming with the colony, hopefully by the end of the month,” Graves said.

No comments: