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Quick thinking and action by staff at Denver Zoo and Pueblo Zoo probably saved the life of an African penguin chick. On March 20, four days past its due date, the chick was assisted with emerging from its shell by Pueblo Zoo Animal Care Coordinator Melanie Pococke. Pococke then sought help from Denver Zoo staff in caring for the tiny bird, when the hatchling’s biological parents at Pueblo Zoo were unable to care for it.


Zookeepers from each zoo met halfway to bring the chick to Denver Zoo where it was placed under the care of experienced parents. The chick’s surrogate father, Durban, and mother, Spencer, are now taking excellent care of their adopted youngster.


Zookeepers always prefer animals are raised by their parents or surrogates of the same species. This helps ensure they have the skills to raise their own young. Upon receiving the chick, Durban and Spencer immediately began “brooding” the chick by covering it with their bodies and wings for protection and quickly began feeding it.

Photo Credits: Photo Credit: Greg Henry/Denver Zoo 

“It has been a great collaboration. We are fortunate to have such a strong network of experienced bird caretakers within our Colorado Zoos,” says Pococke, who has been involved with raising 47 penguin chicks in her 20-year career at the Pueblo Zoo.

“We had to act quickly in order for this to be a success,” says Area Supervisor of Birds Mary Jo Willis. “We’re so pleased to be able to help Pueblo Zoo on this project. We’re thrilled that the surrogate parents took to the chick so quickly.”


The chick will continue to be brooded and fed by the surrogate parents for about 3 months while the chick is covered in soft insulating feathers.  During this time it is not visible to the public. Even in the wild, newly hatched penguins chicks don’t venture near water because they are covered with soft, downy feathers that provide good insulation on land, but would get soaked in the water. Eventually, though young penguins molt and grow in stiffer water repellant plumage.


African penguins are found in southern Africa. Although most people associate penguins with frigid temperatures, African penguins enjoy warmer weather. Even they have their limits, though. In the wild are mostly crepuscular – meaning, they are most active at dawn and dusk when temperatures are more comfortable in their warm weather climate.


They grow to more than two-feet-tall and can weigh around 10 pounds. Their black and white patterns are unique to each penguin, like fingerprints on humans. More important, though the patterns serve as camouflage from predators in the wild as they are swimming. Seen from above, their dark backs blend in with the water. Seen from below, their white bellies blend in with the sky above.


The African penguin is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). They nearly faced extinction because their eggs were harvested for food and their droppings, guano, are an important burrowing material, but is often used by humans for fertilizer.


They have also been subjected to oil spills from tankers rounding the South African coastline, which have wiped out entire colonies of this species. In the past, Denver Zoo has sent staff to Cape Town, South Africa to assist with a world wide effort following the “Treasure” oil spill that affected over 40,000 penguins in 2000. Staff helped rehabilitate penguins by cleaning oil off their bodies and monitoring their health through lab and blood work. Of the penguins brought in for rehabilitation more than 95 percent were saved!