Thursday, December 24, 2009

Zoo keepers hand-rear tiny penguin chicks

Christmas came early for the bird keepers at Bristol Zoo Gardens after the hatching for three tiny penguin chicks.

The African penguin chicks are being hand-reared by keepers at the Zoo who have given them a surrogate mum, a penguin soft toy, to cuddle up to for warmth and comfort.

The youngsters are between two and four weeks old and need to be fed four times a day with small pieces of fish and fish formula packed with extra vitamins. The youngsters will even go home with their keeper on Christmas day so they can continue to be fed throughout the day.

Bristol Zoo’s curator of birds, Nigel Simpson, said: “The chicks like to have something to sleep next to and this penguin soft toy replicates the natural feeling on their mother. A fleece or feather duster also works well.”

Nigel added: “Caring for four penguin chicks is quite demanding, which is why a keeper will take them home for Christmas so they can continue to be fed at regular intervals.”

The chicks can be seen in the Zoo’s specialist incubation room where they will live until they are able to feed themselves at six to eight-weeks-old. They will then be moved into a ‘crèche’ area within the Zoo’s penguin enclosure. There they will learn to swim and fend for themselves before joining the adult penguin group.

The chicks have been reared from eggs as part of a study into the optimum incubation conditions for penguin eggs. This is part of Bristol Zoo’s conservation project to help save endangered African penguins from extinction, as Nigel Simpson explains: “We are leading a chick bolstering project in South Africa where penguin numbers are in sharp decline. In future we may need to call on Zoos to send penguin eggs to South Africa to bolster wild populations on the brink of extinction.

“It is therefore vital that we know exactly how to best care for the penguin eggs during the delicate translocation from England to South Africa, to give the chicks the best chance of growing into healthy adults that are able to help re-populate diminishing penguin numbers in the wild.”

The chick bolstering project, nicknamed Project Penguin, is being run by Bristol Zoo Gardens in partnership with SANCCOB, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Robben Island Museum, the University of Cape Town’s Animal Demography Unit, CapeNature and Marine and Coastal Management (an arm of the South African government).

African penguin numbers are in rapid decline with an estimated 50 per cent decrease in the population over the past four years. The birds are currently listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN red list, but will soon be upgraded to ‘Endangered’.

The major threat to the survival of the species is thought be a lack of food due to over fishing and movement of fish stocks away from the remaining nesting beaches due to factors including global warming.

For more information about Bristol Zoo Gardens’ African penguins, or for adoption details, visit the website  or phone 0117 974 7300.

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