Let's Talk About Birds: African penguins

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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

On a cool crisp fall afternoon in Pittsburgh, a crowd gathers to peek at Sidney and the rest of the penguins. It's not an unofficial NHL-lockout workout at Southpointe, but feeding time at the National Aviary. Sidney, Stanley, Elvis and 13 other African Penguins jostle to be first in line.

At just shorter than 2 feet and weighing between 6-10 pounds, African penguins are quite different from the recognizable Emperor penguin, seen in movies such as "Happy Feet" and "March of the Penguins." Emperor penguins live in a frozen Antarctic climate, but African penguins do not. They live in large flocks, called rookeries, on the temperate beaches along the southern tip of Africa and its surrounding islands. Here, the flightless birds dine on a variety of cold water fish such as anchovies and sardines. A penguin can eat 15 percent of its own body weight in fish, every day. That's the equivalent of a 100-pound human eating 60 quarter-pound hamburgers.

An African penguin may hunt up to 16-18 hours in the water. Using their paddle-like wings, they can "fly" underwater at speeds of 15-20 mph. Webbed feet act like rudders on a boat to steer them toward their next meal.

Despite the beachfront property and daily all-you-can-eat seafood buffets, African penguins, like all penguins, are seeing their numbers decrease in the wild. In 1920, there were more than 1 million African penguins in the wild. Today, there are fewer than 40,000 -- a 96 percent drop. Habitat loss, oil spills, climate change and over-fishing are dramatically affecting the African penguin population. This past month, the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of seabirds and other sea life, has been working to save 219 oiled African penguins and 33 chicks whose parents were caught in the SELI 1 oil slick off Robben Island in Africa.

But all is not lost. Zoos such as the National Aviary are working to save the species.

Through a Species Survival Plan, the National Aviary partners with other zoos across the country to breed and raise a genetically diverse population of penguins. In February, the Aviary welcomed the first penguins to hatch in its 60-year history. Two new rookie prospects joined our team: Sid's kids, Tribby and Kaden.

We all can work together to support African penguins. Join the National Aviary's "Share the Care" program to help us feed, nurture and support the African penguins in our care. And visit the National Aviary as we host African Penguin Awareness Day on Oct. 13. A special fun-filled day of penguin-related events is planned: daily feedings, Penguin Connections, Family Penguin Paintings and more. You can learn more about the South African foundation's oil spill rehabilitation, chick rearing and education efforts and how you can help African penguins in the wild.

Even if there isn't hockey this winter, the penguins will always be in season at the National Aviary. For more information, visit our website at www.aviary.org.



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