Three webbed-feet bachelors in tuxedos waddle their way into a cordoned-off section of Lincoln Park Zoo’s new penguin cove, where several visitors sit on a bench waiting for the birds to arrive.
First come Phil and Aje, each about 2 years old. Phil has a yellow and orange band on his right flipper so that zoo staff can identify him, while Aje (pronounced ah-shee) wears a teal band. Later they’ll be joined by Erik, who sports a blue band.
“These are all young bachelors, so they have to figure out where they fit in the colony,” said Jessica Greensmith, a guest engagement specialist at the zoo. “They don’t have a mate. They’re pretty close with the keepers, and they’re the ones that choose to come in most often. All the others are pretty occupied building nests and hanging out with their mates.”
After staring up at their keepers, Phil follows Aje back and forth across the exhibit’s boulder-like ledge, which is designed to mimic the rocky South African coast that this penguin species calls home.
As the pair passes by, Aje steps over a brown loafer in his path and glances up at its owner.
For the first time, Lincoln Park Zoo is offering Penguin Encounters that give visitors an up-close look at some of the zoo’s 15 African penguins, whose tuxedo-like black body, white chest and curious nature endear them to many human fans.
Now through Oct. 31, the zoo will offer the experience twice daily, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. The program lasts 45 minutes to an hour, with about 20 minutes inside the exhibit. Registration is $60 per person (ages 6 and up) or $50 for zoo members, and includes a group photo.
Participants wear rubber shoe protectors and gaiters, which cover the lower leg, in case a penguin decides to go to the bathroom nearby. Participants may not touch or feed the penguins, but zoo staff will ask one or two penguins to join visitors in a separate area of the habitat.
“We’re actually going into their home, which is really unique,” Greensmith said. “We always give our penguins the choice to come in and participate or not.”
The new experience is part of the zoo’s effort to raise awareness about African penguins, whose population has decreased from 1 million breeding pairs in 1900 to about 25,000 today. The species’ decline has been attributed to increased commercial fishing and changes in prey populations – and one other cause.
“It’s mostly because of one thing: guano,” Greensmith said. “Guano is penguin poop.”
As burrowing penguins, African penguins used their guano to build nests, which offer protection from the elements and predators. But humans discovered that guano was perfect fertilizer and began taking it from islands off South Africa to use for their farms and gardens. Eventually, they took all of it.
“The penguins had nothing left to burrow into,” Greensmith said. “They were left exposed to the elements and to predators, and their population declined significantly.”
The zoo’s colony of 15 penguins, all of whom were bred in captivity, arrived last October. They are the first African penguins to live at Lincoln Park Zoo, which is hosting them as part of an international effort to sustain the troubled species.
During the Penguin Encounter, visitors observe several facets of penguin life while learning that the birds have personalities as unique as the pattern of black feathers on their bellies.
The bachelors – Phil, Aje and Erik – have just completed their yearly molt, a three-step process in which penguins shed their worn-out feathers to make way for new ones.
African penguins have 70-100 feathers per square inch. Each feather is attached to a muscle, allowing the penguins to control their feathers based on their needs.
“They can hold their feathers away from their body to trap heat, to trap air, and that creates an insulating layer if it’s cold,” Greensmith said. “Or they can shake out that air and cool themselves down.”
Erik, one of the 2-year-old bachelors, is constantly concerned about his looks.
“Even if they don’t have their bands on them, we’d know this is Erik because all he does is preen,” said Larry O’Connor, an animal keeper who works with the penguins.
Preening is the process by which penguins clean, rearrange and oil their feathers, which, like molting, must be done every year. Penguins’ feathers are not naturally waterproof, but they have a special gland at the base of their tail that secretes waterproof oil.
“He’ll pick up a little bit from his tail and then spread it all over his feathers so that he’s waterproof,” Greensmith said as Erik preened away. “And the cool thing that these penguins do is that they’ll preen each other. There are certain spots on his back and on his neck that he can’t reach, and so the other penguins will help him out.”
In addition to being bachelors, Erik, Aje and Phil have another thing in common: they love the spotlight.
The three penguins are most eager to meet visitors during Penguin Encounters, and they frequently make themselves visible to guests on the outside of the exhibit.
“They really love interacting with kids on the other side, which is great,” said Brianna Larson, an animal keeper who also works with penguins. “They’re really charismatic. They’re so playful, they’re so curious.”
And a bit clumsy.
“They’re not very graceful on land,” Larson said.
In water, it’s another story. African penguins can dive 400 feet in two minutes, O’Connor said, or about 12 miles per hour.
They enjoy chasing after large balls of ice that zoo staff drop into their water. They also like to play in the sprinkler, waddle after rolling Wiffle balls and wave their flippers at dangling string and other toys.
“Phil is very active but he’s extremely jealous,” O’Connor said. “He really wants to be out here.”
Erik, the king of preening, also likes the attention. But he needs his beauty rest, even if it happens while visitors are there.
“Sometimes he just comes out here and falls asleep,” O’Connor said.
Preston, the colony’s dominant penguin, stands on a ledge and cranes his neck upward as he lets out a noise that sounds like a donkey.
He’s calling for his mate, Robben.
“They can tell each other’s voices just like we can,” Larson said.
Of the colony’s 15 penguins, 10 are female and five are male. Mating pairs are selected by conservation specialists who study each penguin’s genetics, which helps them identify the best combinations in order to diversify the species’ population.
All of the colony’s females have steady partners, except for Madiba, who waffles between Dudley and Mandela.
“We have kind of a trio,” Larson said. “She likes one male in one space and the other male in a different space.”
Each mating pair builds its own nest, with the male and female working together.
But what about the males without mates?
“Males can pair with males,” Larson said. “We’ve recently started to see that a little bit with these guys.”
Visit the Malott Family Penguin Encounter page of the zoo’s website to learn more.
Note: This story was originally published on July 20.
Follow Alex Ruppenthal on Twitter: @arupp
July 17: Lincoln Park Zoo recently launched a web series to chronicle the latest crushes, power struggles and other dramatic twists and turns surrounding the lives of its 15 African penguins.
Feb. 20: For the fifth year, members of Shedd Aquarium's Animal Response Team participated in a rescue mission of endangered penguin chicks in South Africa. Learn about their work.
Sept. 29: The Lincoln Park Zoo gave journalists a sneak peek of the new African penguin exhibit, which aims to replicate the birds' natural habitat in southern Africa.