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Posted: Friday, 30 August 2013 7:42AM

Record 6 blackfooted penguin chicks at Audubon



Three more endangered African blackfooted penguin chicks are going on display at the Audubon Aquarium.

Brother and sister, Peewee and Fuzzy, and a male named Sassafras will join 34 African penguins and three rockhopper penguins from South America on Friday in the habitat of water and artificial rock. The chicks are gray-and-white for about a year before their tuxedo plumage comes in.

They hatched in June - and, together with three hatched in March, have either set or matched a record set in 1988, said senior aviculturist Darwin Long. He said he'd need time to go through the records to be sure whether the older record is four or six.

"We might be at double-digits by the end of the year," he said, since five more eggs are being incubated.



However, Long cautioned, it's risky to count blackfooted penguin chicks before they're three months old, let alone before they're hatched. In the past 18 months or so, 30 percent of the aquarium's fertile eggs either did not hatch or hatched chicks that died in their first 12 fragile weeks.

In Namibia and South Africa, where they breed on 25 islands and four mainland sites, only 20 to 40 percent of the chicks survive, Long said. He said that's largely because people have overfished pilchards and Cape anchovies, the penguins' main food. Parents take turns on the nest and finding food - but if one takes too long looking for food, its partner will abandon the nest to feed itself.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the penguins endangered in 2010, saying their numbers fell about 90 percent during the 20th century and continue to plummet. Other reasons for the collapse include collection and sales of their eggs as food, oil spills that killed tens of thousands of the birds and guano mining that destroyed the thick surface in which they once burrowed to lay their eggs.

Long said Audubon's current 70 percent chick success rate is an improvement from previous years brought about by using two incubators instead of one.

"We found out that humidity played a bigger role even than temperature regulation" in hatching healthy chicks for these birds, he said.

He said higher humidity helps soften shells so chicks that "pip" an egg when no humans are around to help them out can emerge more easily. But at earlier stages, it can damage the developing chick.

"Now we have a low-humidity incubator and a high-humidity incubator," he said.

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