With summer around the corner, the first of the Gentoo Penguin chicks at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo have started to poke their beaks out of their shells. The first fluffy chick hatched on May 5 and was soon followed by another three hatchlings, two of which are on the same nest.
Penguin breeding season began in early March, with the annual placing of the nest rings and pebbles into Penguins Rock, before the male penguins sought out the best looking and smoothest pebbles to ‘propose’ to their potential mates. The first eggs were laid over Easter weekend, and, after a 33-35 day incubation period, the chicks of 2016 have started to hatch!
Dawn Nicoll, Penguin Keeper at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, said, “This is our favourite time of year as the new Penguin chicks begin to hatch. The entire breeding season is an incredibly busy time, but it is all worth it when you see the tiny Penguins start to break out of their shells and be cared for by both their parents.
“The rest of the eggs should hatch over the next two to three weeks, as the Penguins don’t all lay their eggs at the same time. We had a very successful breeding season last year, with 16 chicks hatching, so we are hoping for another successful year as Gentoo Penguins are classified as near threatened.”
Once the chicks get a little older, they will leave the nest and join a nearby crèche, where they will learn all the skills essential to being a penguin, such as how to swim and feed.
The Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua) is a species in the genus Pygoscelis, most closely associated with the Adélie Penguin (P. adeliae) and the Chinstrap Penguin (P. antarcticus). Johann Reinhold Forster made the first scientific description in 1781, with a reference point of the Falkland Islands. The Gentoo Penguin calls in a variety of ways, but the most frequently heard is a loud trumpeting, which is emitted with its head thrown back.
In the wild, breeding colonies of Gentoo Penguins are located on ice-free surface. Colonies can be directly on the shoreline or can be located considerably inland. They prefer shallow coastal areas and often nest between tufts of grass.
Wild Gentoos breed on many sub-Antarctic islands. The main colonies are on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Kerguelen Islands; smaller populations are found on Macquarie Island, Heard Islands, South Shetland Islands, and the Antarctic Peninsula. The total breeding population is estimated to be over 300,000 pairs. Nests are usually made from a roughly circular pile of stones and can be quite large, 20 cm (7.9 in) high and 25 cm (9.8 in) in diameter. The stones are jealously guarded, and their ownership can be the subject of noisy disputes between individual Penguins. The females, even to the point that a male can obtain the favors of a female by offering her a nice stone, also prize the stones.
Typically, two eggs are laid, both weighing around 130 g (4.6 oz). The parents share incubation, changing duty daily. The eggs hatch after 34 to 36 days. The chicks remain in the nests for about 30 days before forming creches. The chicks molt into sub-adult plumage and go out to sea at about 80 to 100 days.
Due to the decline in their populations, Gentoo Penguins are listed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List. Reasons for their decline include increased illegal egg collection and oil exploration around the Falkland Islands, as well as disturbance from tourism which is leading to decreased breeding productivity.
Penguins have been an integral part of RZSS Edinburgh Zoo for over 100 years and the Zoo has the largest outdoor Penguin pool in Europe. They were one of the first species that arrived, and the Zoo and the Society became world renowned when they were the first outside the southern hemisphere to breed King Penguins.
The world famous daily Penguin Parade began in 1951 when a keeper accidentally left the gate open and the penguins went for a short walk and then returned to their enclosure; keepers still open the gate every day at 2.15pm and birds who voluntarily want to take part go for a short walk outside their enclosure.