The National Aviary is getting the birthday preparations ready for the first penguin babies in its 58-year history, although the celebration may be bittersweet.
The aviary has a pair of African penguins who have the genetic makeup to soon mate successfully, which could mean penguin eggs in two months. Although the North Side institution is a national leader in protecting the species, which have a prime home in the aviary's recently renovated building, it has never had a birth there.
The timing is critical. The species was officially declared endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Sept. 28 and by an international conservation body in June. The African penguin population has dropped from 141,000 about 50 years ago, to 50,000 in 2000 to 25,000 today, a rate that could see them erased from the wild within 10 years.
They are getting killed by commercial fishing, destruction of their habitat, oil pollution and other factors.
"Everybody loves penguins. The challenge is they're trying to survive," said Steve Sarro, the aviary's director of animal programs and the national coordinator of efforts to protect the species. But if the chicks come, he said, "We are going to celebrate. Trust me."
The African penguin lives off the southern coast of Africa, and is roughly half the size of the Emperor penguins of Antarctica. The aviary is home to 12 of the smallish birds, who behave almost like children, said Mr. Sarro, who has worked among them for 25 years. "They're like 3-year-olds. They're very challenging to work with sometimes," he said.
Mr. Sarro is the national coordinator for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums' African penguin species survival plan. It involves a scientific breeding program for the birds, which can mean matching them up with genetically attuned penguins from other institutions from around the country. The aviary cooperates with similar breeding plans for andean condors, Guam rails and other endangered birds that have hatched chicks on the North Side.
Mr. Sarro is head national matchmaker for the penguins, or "the stud-book keeper himself," said National Aviary executive director Patrick Mangus.
The aviary's penguin parents-to-be are in a private area Mr. Sarro calls "the honeymoon suite," secluded from the other penguins. They have not mated yet -- the male is molting his feathers -- but should be ready soon, in what their internal clock thinks is summertime, since their natural habitat is on the southern hemisphere.
If the mating is successful, there are usually two eggs produced after two months and then cared for by both parents during a 38-day incubation period.
The aviary also announced Tuesday its latest accreditation from the AZA, which Mr. Mangus described as a "Good Housekeeping seal of approval" within the zoo industry. (The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is also accredited.)
Zoo and aquarium buildings, programs and administrators submit to a thorough examination every five years to get the distinction, which the National Aviary has had for 25 years.
It helps make sure institutions promote the latest advances in animal welfare, science and conservation, explained AZA president and CEO Jim Maddy.
During site visits, AZA examiners "practically pick up your wastebaskets and make sure you don't have any cobwebs on the bottom," Mr. Maddy said.
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581.