Texas' SeaWorld San Antonio celebrated another record-breaking penguin breeding season, with a total of 31 Gentoo, Chinstrap and Rockhopper Penguin chicks hatching in December and January.
The breeding season at SeaWorld San Antonio begins each year in September, as aviculturists haul in over 7 tons of rocks by the bucket load to form three distinct rookeries, or penguin nesting areas. Highly monogamous, Gentoo, Chinstrap and Rockhopper Penguins typically return to the exact same nesting location, with the same mate, year after year.
Most of the chicks hatched were incubated by their parents, although foster parents and incubators were utilized when necessary. Because penguins lay their eggs in rocky nests, the shells of the eggs are especially thick and protective. It can take chicks several days to hatch, so aviculturalists keep an eye on the little ones as they peck their way out of those tough eggs.
Right after hatching, the exhausted chicks rest and gain warmth from their parents. After about twenty-four hours, the chicks gain an appetite and both parents take turns regurgitating fish for their young.
The chicks spend their first few weeks of life being kept warm and safe by both parents, who share in the duties of brooding and feeding their youngsters. Aviculturists carefully monitor all penguin families, and take frequent weights of chicks to ensure healthy growth.
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After several weeks, the chicks transition into the full-time care of the aviculture team, who work closely with the chicks to develop feeding independence and ensure first ventures into the water happen safely. This also helps to develop a lifelong bond of trust and comfort around people. After they have fledged, or lost their fuzzy chick down, they are then introduced into the colony. Fledging can take as little as seven weeks for Chinstrap Penguins, so it won’t be long before the little ones are virtually indistinguishable from adults!
The IUCN ranks Gentoo and Rockhopper Penguins as near threatened and vulnerable, respectively. Reasons for decline aren't clear, but could be affected by increases in natural predators and in competitors such as fur seals that rely on the same fish. Climate change may also be a factor, and penguin populations have been hurt in the past by harmful algal blooms that produce toxins that build up in fish. But there's good news, too, for penguin-lovers: Chinstrap Penguins are a species of least concern and their populations seem to be on the rise.