PORTLAND, Ore. Three new chicks have joined the Oregon Zoo's Humboldt penguin colony this month. Visitors can look for the young penguins this summer, once the chicks fledge and begin to explore the rugged terrain of the zoo's penguinarium, which simulates the endangered birds' native habitat along the rocky coast of Chile and Peru.
For now, keepers say, the recent arrivals are keeping cozy in their nest boxes, growing strong on a diet of regurgitated "fish smoothie" provided by their parents. The first Humboldt hatchling of the year, who arrived March 11 to parents Milo and Vivo, has already been eating with enough gusto to have earned the nickname "Porker."
The young penguins' genders won't be known until their first full veterinary checkup takes place in about three months.
"The chicks look like velvety gray plush toys," said curator Michael Illig, who oversees the zoo's birds and species recovery programs. "They weigh just a few ounces and can fit in the palm of your hand."
By summer, the chicks will be nearly as tall as the adult Humboldts, but easy to tell apart by their plumage: They will be grayish-brown all over and won't develop the distinctive black-and-white tuxedo markings for a couple more years.
Young penguins can swim right away once they fledge no lessons needed and visitors should have good views of these sleek sea birds darting through the clear waters of the zoo's penguinarium. In 2012, the zoo completed a much-needed upgrade of the penguinarium's water-filtration system, one of many improvements funded by the community-supported 2008 zoo bond measure aimed at protecting animal health and safety while conserving and recycling water. The upgrade saves around 7 million gallons each year.
Humboldt penguins, which live along the South American coastline off of Peru and Chile, are classified as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and in 2010 were granted protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Of the world's 17 penguin species, Humboldts are among the most at risk, threatened by overfishing of their prey species, entanglement in fishing nets, and breeding disruption due to commercial removal of the guano deposits where the penguins lay their eggs. Their population is estimated at 12,000 breeding pairs.
Through its Future for Wildlife program, the Oregon Zoo has supported Peru-based conservation organization ACOREMA's work to protect the vulnerable Humboldt penguin. ACOREMA monitors penguin mortality and works closely with San Andrs fishermen to mitigate the practice of hunting penguins for food. The group also trains volunteer rangers, reaching out to 3,000 students, teachers and Pisco-area residents a year to raise awareness about penguin conservation.