There is a love story, of sorts, going on at the Sedgwick County Zoo.
As male Humboldt penguins go, Penguin Orange Blue Blue (so named because of the bands he wears) is quite the catch. He came from a good genetic family, wears a tux, is devoted to his lady and charismatic with people, often the first to greet visitors as they pass by the pool at the zoo’s Cessna Penguin Cove.
Female penguin Blue Green Green has had her share of heartache. She fell for the wrong guy, genetically speaking, twice. Breaking up is hard to do. Penguins tend to be monogamous.
And then, Penguin Orange Blue Blue came along offering blades of dried grass, suggesting she build a nest. She did. They did.
They have yet to produce any offspring. And yet, these two are hope for future populations of Humboldt penguins everywhere.
“He is a real priority for us to reproduce with this certain female,” said Joe Barkowski, the zoo’s curator of birds. “She has reproduced before and this is an important pairing genetically speaking. It will be a boost for the population to get his genes represented.”
Theirs is only part of the story being told Saturday, which is World Penguin Day.
The other part is that the zoo isn’t lacking for baby penguins. Four 6-week-old downy chicks were introduced to reporters on Thursday. They were all about the size and weight of adults cats – 6 to 7 pounds – and about as easy to herd and wrangle. The chicks and their parents occupy three of the nest boxes at the Cessna Penguin Cove; Penguins Blue Green Green and Orange Blue Blue occupy the fourth.
Barkowski and penguin keeper Steve Larson caught the chicks briefly for their weekly weigh-in, cautioning not to get too close because baby penguins are known for projectile pooping.
From the chicks to the Couple Green and Blue, the story is about species survival plans.
They are a South American penguin, typically breeding in coastal Peru and Chile. Humboldt penguins are threatened, with about 9,000 breeding pairs in the wild. That’s why zookeepers pay so much attention to how they mate. They keep detailed records of each of the zoo’s 25 penguins on breeding and management plans, looking at each DNA and likelihood for reproduction.
When the wrong penguins become attracted to each other, they are separated. The genetically correct pairs are put in holding rooms behind the exhibits where they can eyeball each other, get acquainted and develop bonds.
With luck, the pair will begin to bow to one another, vocalize and build a nest.
On Thursday when the chicks were briefly separated from their parents, the loudest objections – squawking and honking that sounded more like donkeys braying – came from Couple Green and Blue.