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Penguins get their hot day at the zoo (and don’t assume they didn’t like it)

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 3, 2014, at 8:07 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, May 25, 2014, at 2:54 p.m.


Saturday’s heat might not have seemed like the best atmosphere for World Penguin Day at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

When most people think of penguins, they think of icy cold.

But even though it was near 90 degrees Saturday afternoon and perspiration was breaking out on the humans, the Humboldt penguins that live at the Sedgwick County Zoo proved they can take some heat. The species comes from the rocky coasts of Chile and Peru, bordering desert where the temperatures can reach around 90 degrees.

It’s a misconception that all of the world’s penguins slip and slide around on snow and ice, said Megan Wells, the zookeeper of birds.

The purpose of Penguin Day is to help educate people about penguins so the vulnerable creatures can be appreciated and protected.

The Humboldt penguin population – there are 28 at the zoo’s Cessna Penguin Cove – is dwindling partly because much of its nesting material has been removed by humans.

The birds use strong toes and thick nails to maneuver on sea cliffs so they can safely nest in burrows dug into seabird feces, known as guano.

The problem is humans harvest much of the guano because it makes good fertilizer. Part of the effort to save the Humboldt penguin comes from sustainable harvesting of guano, Wells said.

In their nests at the zoo, the penguins use grass to line their concrete homes, topped with guano. The guano helps keep them warm.

On Saturday, zoo visitors seemed to get the biggest enjoyment watching the penguins cavort in the water, which is maintained between 55 and 65 degrees.

One woman, standing with small children, pointed at one of the penguins and said excitedly, “He’s looking right at you, guys.”

Each penguin is unique, Wells said. “They all have their own personalities.”

Someone who can’t get to the zoo can see the birds by going to the penguin camera on the zoo’s website, www.scz.org.

In the wild, Humboldt penguins can swim at speeds of up to 20 mph, propelling themselves with flipperlike wings. A sign at the zoo exhibit says that when they dive, it’s rare for them to stay down for more than two minutes, or they will run out of oxygen.

Still, they spend up to three-fourths of their time in the water, eating all kinds of fish. They are opportunists, Wells said.

To evade predators, they huddle together under the water’s surface. Wells said they have many natural predators: sharks, seals and killer whales.

But one of their biggest threats comes from domestic dogs and cats.

Some of her knowledge comes from visiting the biggest colony of Humboldt penguins – about 5,000 of the birds – in Peru.

The chicks are born weighing one-tenth of a pound. Their eyes open when they are about week old.

By the time they are adults, a female will weigh 9 to 10 pounds, a male 11 to 13 pounds.

One also might think they don’t have knees, because they waddle when they walk. The truth is, you can’t see their knees because they are covered by layers of fat and feathers.

As Wells was giving her penguin primer, a man said he was interested in holding one of the birds.

“They’re pretty mean,” she replied. “I wouldn’t want to hold one.”

Their compact muscles make them strong, and they bite with their beaks.

Wells knows – as her scars show.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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