Conservation spotlight: A journey to Peru to count penguins

Dallas Zoo’s VP of Conservation and Education, Dr. Patty McGill, guest blogs on ZooHoo!

Humboldt penguins along the Peruvian coast. Photo credit: Austin McKahan, Kansas City Zoo digital marketing manager

Humboldt penguins along the Peruvian coast. Photo credit: Austin McKahan, Kansas City Zoo digital marketing manager

For 18 long days this past January, I joined more than 20 biologists from across the world to conduct a critical population census on Humboldt penguins along the Peruvian coasts. Our work started outside of Lima, and we made our way south to a site close to the border of Chile.

For 15 years, I’ve traveled to Peru in search of these vulnerable birds. I was part of an international team that designed the census methods in 1998, and I have worked to keep the census going almost every January since.

Nearly half of the Humboldt penguin population was wiped out during the 1997-98 El Niño. With 20,558 penguins tallied in January 2014, the small population is slowly rebounding, but still faces many climate and human-related threats.

Dr. Patty McGill pictured second from left, front row, with team of researchers from institutions including Kansas City Zoo and Saint Louis Zoo.

Dr. Patty McGill pictured second from left, front row, with team of researchers from institutions including Kansas City Zoo and Saint Louis Zoo./Austin McKahan

Our first expedition this year focused on two separate island groups. We began with Isla Asia. The fisherman we hired to take us to this island kept his 20-foot-long open wooden boat on a sandy beach. With no dock, we waded into the surf and as the fisherman watched the waves, we scrambled into the boat on his command. The journey to the island took nearly an hour, but we were entertained along the way by several groups of dolphins and hundreds of seabirds.

After finishing the counts around Isla Asia and all of the little rocky islets in the area, we went back to shore and drove a little farther north to another set of islands, the largest of which is Isla Pachacamac. The really unusual thing about this island is that there is a very large cave, open to the ocean, where penguins nest and also take shelter at other times of year. When the seas are calm, we can approach the point where the cave opens into the ocean; being very careful of submerged rocks, the fisherman steered his boat to the perfect place to peer into the dim light of the cave with our binoculars. We spotted 490 penguins!

Spotting the Humboldt penguins isn't easy on the rocky coasts.

Spotting the Humboldt penguins isn’t easy on the rocky coasts./Austin McKahan

Humboldt penguins are the BEST penguins – or at least that’s my opinion! They’re found on the coasts of Peru and Chile. You may wonder why they’re found well within the tropics, and perhaps you wonder even more why they nest along the coast edge of one of the driest deserts on Earth. In fact, it is so extremely dry that it almost never rains, leaving very few plants.

So how do penguins survive here? The ocean is extremely cold because the Humboldt Current flows across the Sub-Antarctic, then turns north and sweeps up the west coast of South America, providing cold and highly productive water. The fish there are very abundant. So penguins may not need frigid air and ice, but they always need cold water for finding food.

Binoculars were essential during the census./Austin McKahan

Binoculars were essential during the census./Austin McKahan


While in the field, we use a variety of boats to find these birds. In two locations, we charter small tourist boats that accommodate up to 20 people, even though our team is usually only about five at a time. But by chartering the whole boat, we can do two things: visit penguin sites, not tourist sites on the coast, and invite local colleagues and park rangers to participate.

At most locations, however, we hire local fishermen to take us to islands. Their boats are typically wooden and range in size from room for eight, down to tiny boats that will hold only three. It’s a big ocean for these small boats, even when we are usually within sight of the coast. These fishermen do not have compasses or GPS, but they know these islands and rocky peninsulas like the backs of their hands. The biggest challenge is dense fog – sometimes we have to stop and just sit until the fog lifts. That’s especially strange when we’re near an island and the cries of invisible sea lions and birds surround us in the fog!

Penguins in Peru

Photo by Austin McKahan

Sadly, like their Galápagos and African penguin relatives, Humboldt penguins have declined significantly. These penguins face a few serious challenges – declining food supply (fish); climate change and warming oceans which cause changes in ocean currents and productivity of the ocean; and human-related disturbances where penguins nest.

But the Dallas Zoo is working to help our guests discover penguins, and make pledges to help save these birds at home through simple actions, such as, eating sustainable seafood and reducing unnecessary use of electricity.

Our census work is very important in tracking what’s happening with penguins all along the Peruvian coast. I’m proud that we have maintained a consistent effort to monitor the fortunes of these birds for so many years. However, this year our results are concerning – at various sites, we’ve seen 15 to 50 percent fewer birds than in recent years. We think the numbers are still affected by El Niño, which causes warming of the coastal waters. We hope these magnificent penguins are finding ways to cope and that their numbers recover quickly. I look forward to reporting more in 2017.

Categories: Birds, Conservation, Penguins | 1 Comment

An amazing spring for our Bird Team

Dallas Zoo's Bird Curator, Sprina Liu

Dallas Zoo’s Bird Curator, Sprina Liu

While giraffe and ocelot babies have gotten a lot of attention at the Dallas Zoo this spring, our world-class bird department quietly has been notching success after success in breeding remarkable, threatened animals. The births are very carefully planned under recommendations from the Species Survival Plans, coordinated through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to help ensure the survival of endangered species.

Here are just a few of the new hatchings, and why they matter so much:

White-backed vultures: One chick, hatched May 25. This is a remarkable achievement; we’re just the fourth North American zoo to hatch these African birds, and the first in 16 years to do so. There are only 13 white-backed vultures, including our chick, in U.S. zoos.

_MG_1871-White-backed Vulture chick 6-9-15-CB (427x640)

Kori bustards: Two chicks. These threatened African birds are among the heaviest flighted birds in the world; the males can weigh more than 40 pounds when full-grown. They’re being raised off-exhibit, so you can’t see them just yet. These new additions give us seven!

_MG_1002-Kori Bustard Chicks Barn 8-CB (640x640)

African spoonbill: Six chicks, making us home to 22, more than any other U.S. zoo. (And we expect to have a few more soon, too!) The chicks are being raised off-exhibit so they continue to thrive, but you can see our adult African spoonbills in the A.D. Martin Forest Aviary in the Wilds of Africa.

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Yellow-billed storks: Three chicks, giving us 14.These hatchings are hugely significant, because they’re genetically important key players in the Species Survival Plan. There are only about 50 in U.S. zoos, and 14 of them are at the Dallas Zoo.

_MG_9986-Yellow-billed stork-Barn 9-CB (640x427)

Southern ground hornbill: One chick. Only a handful of these threatened African birds hatched out within the last year in the United States. These are the “wolves of the bird world,” living in family groups. You can see them along the monorail habitats when it reopens this fall.

African Ground Hornbill chick-KG (640x427)

Marabou storks: Four chicks. These African birds are being raised off-exhibit, but one is being raised by its parents in an outdoor nest among the Bush Overlook in the Wilds of Africa. You’ll need a sharp eye to spot the nest! These baby birds look a lot like pterodactyls, but we promise they have nothing to do with the Giants of the Jurassic exhibit. These new babies are significant because husbandry of this species is challenging.

_MG_9835-Marabou stork chicks-CB (640x447)

Waldrapp ibis: One chick. This little one is extremely significant because Waldrapp ibis are the most critically endangered bird at the Dallas Zoo. They’re native to Morocco and one or two other places in the world, but only a few hundred remain in the wild. About 150 live in U.S. zoos, including our 12. (Harrison Edell, our senior director of Living Collections, is the coordinator of the Species Survival Plan for this species.) Meet the Waldrapp ibis in the Forest Aviary, along the Gorilla Trail in the Wilds of Africa.

IMG_0609-Waldrapp Chick-KG (469x640)

Hadada ibis: Two chicks, both hatched in the past three weeks. These African birds, easily distinguishable by their long, thin beaks and iridescent feathers, aren’t easy to breed. They’re being raised off-exhibit, but you can see adult Hadada ibis in the Forest Aviary. (Edell is also the SSP coordinator for these.)

_MG_1066-Hadada chick in Barn 8-CB (640x427)

African black-footed penguin: One chick. As previously noted here on ZooHoo!, this April 15 hatching is the first penguin chick ever at the Dallas Zoo, making it the tenth member of our exhibit flock. The chick now weighs about 6 pounds, and is beginning to grow feathers to replace its soft gray down. Once those feathers grow in, the chick can begin to practice swimming in Don Glendenning Penguin Cove.

_MG_1922-Penguin Chick 6-9-15-CB (427x640)

King vulture: One chick, our newest, hatched June 6. The strikingly unique birds have beautifully colored orange-and-purple heads, hairless as is typical of vultures. (It keeps them cleaner, since they are carrion eaters.) They’re native to Central and South America, but you’ll find ours on Wings of Wonder in ZooNorth.

DSC02401-King Vulture-SL (640x427)

“A combination of factors contributed to our success this spring,” said Sprina Liu, the Dallas Zoo’s bird curator. “First and foremost, our bird keepers have a total of over 300 years of experience, and many came here with experience from other institutions. So we have a strong team that keeps a close eye on the birds to ensure they have the environment they need to breed successfully.

“We give the adults what they need to breed and they do the rest,” Liu said. “If not, having the observational and technical skills to identify problems and decide what to do is vital. If we encounter problems, we methodically review each step of our management (both historical and current), how the birds or chicks reacted to it and what we need to do to make it better. We did that many times this year, and depending on the situation, we modified our approach every few hours.

“In addition, we have strong animal nutrition and veterinary staffs that react immediately to changes that needed to be made.

“And lastly, while much has to do with skill, in some situations I think just plain dumb luck helped us out,” she added with a smile.

The Dallas Zoo’s bird experts will continue to work with SSP coordinators for these birds to determine where they will be placed.

Categories: Birds, Conservation, Penguins, Zookeepers | Leave a comment

Uniting to Save Animals From Extinction (SAFE)

Three days, six endangered species stations, 30 volunteers and 4,074 people who pledged to help save endangered animals — it IMG_9092 SAFE Endangered Species Penguin CS (800x533)was an extraordinary weekend for wildlife.

On the 10th anniversary of Endangered Species Day, we joined the Association of Zoos & IMG_9106 SAFE Endangered Species Penguin CS (533x800)Aquariums (AZA) for the launch of SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction. SAFE is an incredible nationwide effort uniting 228 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to raise awareness for species that desperately need our help.

We invited guests to discover how they could help save elephants, cheetahs, penguins, and gorillas in Africa, as well as the monarch butterfly here in Texas. And their response blew us away.

“We saw that people wanted to be more personally involved,” said Ben Jones, dean of Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Academy. “They were inspired by our animals, and they wanted to be invited to help. They just needed a little guidance.”IMG_9101 SAFE Endangered Species Penguin CS (533x800)

But we also learned that while many people know in a general sense that wildlife’s in trouble, they don’t know how severe the threat of extinction is that these animals face. So we’d like to share these green actions that start right at home. We hope to inspire more conversations, ignite a light to investigate, and become conservationists to help protect what we have now before it’s too late.

My Pledge to Protect Penguins:

  • I’ll buy sustainable seafood.
  • I’ll save energy. When not in use, I’ll turn off the juice.

My Pledge to Protect Elephants:

  • I’ll spread the word about ivory & never buy it.
  • I’ll respect & protect native wildlife.

My Pledge to Protect Gorillas:

  • I’ll extend the life of my mobile phone & recycle it.
  • I’ll buy sustainable forest products.

My Pledge to Protect Cheetahs:

  • I’ll respect & protect native wildlife.
  • I’ll restore wildlife habitat.

My Pledge to Protect Monarch Butterflys:

  • I’ll plant milkweed.
  • I’ll reduce or eliminate yard pesticides.

My Pledge to Protect Wildlife:

  • I’ll use reusable grocery bags.
  • I’ll pick up 10 pieces of litter pollution every week.

IMG_9169 SAFE Endangered Species Penguin CS (800x533)To view all of the photos from our Endangered Species Weekend, click HERE. And to see photos of how other AZA-accredited zoos/aquariums participated to inspire change, click HERE.

Categories: Cheetah, Conservation, Elephant, Events, Gorilla, Penguins | Leave a comment

Dallas Zoo’s FIRST EVER baby penguin melts hearts

Penguin chick is held by a keeper during a well-baby checkup.

The penguin chick is held by a keeper during a well-baby checkup.

The cat’s out of the bag. Or more like, the penguin is out of the egg! We’ve kept this chick’s arrival quiet for 20 days — and now we’re ready to scream it from the mountaintops. This little one is the FIRST EVER penguin chick to hatch at the Dallas Zoo, making it the tenth member of the flock. Hatched April 15, the African black-footed penguin also is the first chick for proud parents Tazo and Tulip.

“This is a huge deal for our bird team and we couldn’t be more excited,” said Bird Curator Sprina Liu. “We were overjoyed when we walked in that morning and found the chick with its parents.”

The baby penguin begins to hatch April 15, 2015.

The baby penguin pokes its beak out as it begins to hatch April 15, 2015.

The baby is being cared for off-habitat by mom and dad at the Don Glendenning Penguin Cove. For about a month, Tazo and Tulip shared around-the-clock incubating duties until it hatched. Weighing a little more than a C battery at hatch, the chick has grown to about 2.5 pounds.

This hatch was an African Penguin Species Survival Plan (SSP) breeding recommendation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to help ensure the survival of this endangered species. Found in South Africa, these birds have suffered a 90 percent decline in population since the early 1900s. Today, fewer than 50,000 African penguins remain in the wild.

“We’ve dedicated years of work to help save African penguins in the wild, and now we’re helping expand their populations in human care,” Liu said. “We’re very proud to be able to add this little one to the North American population.”

Penguin chick eyes DM

The little one sleeps in the hands of a keeper during its well-baby checkup.

But don’t expect to see the baby just yet — with no feathers, it won’t start swimming lessons for a few months. Until then, the chick will remain off habitat, staying close to mom and dad. For now, the parents are doing exactly what they’re supposed to — taking turns keeping the chick warm by spreading their feathers out, allowing it to snuggle up next to them (a term called brooding).

Warning: It’s likely you’ll see our bird keepers walking around with permanent smiles on their faces.


Categories: Africa, Conservation, Penguins, Veterinary Care, Zookeepers | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

$5 admission during Penguin Days through Feb.

African black-footed penguin

African black-footed penguin

That’s right – through January and February the price of admission is dropping with the temps. Until Feb. 28, guests can visit the African penguins (and all the other animals) for just $5 per person. Children age 2 and younger and Dallas Zoo members are always free.

The special pricing is our way of thanking our incredible community for support throughout 2014. Even if it’s chilly, the lower admission offers a chance to enjoy the warmth of the nation’s most venomous Herpetarium, the creepy-crawlies of Bug U!, facts about great apes at the Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation Research Station, and to hear the trumpeting of an elephant in the Simmons Safari Base Camp at the Giants of the Savanna.

Here’s 30 seconds of our 11 African black-footed penguins waddling, torpedoing and plunging their way through winter.

Categories: Birds, Events, Guest Services, Media, Penguins | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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