Two adorable, healthy Macaroni penguin chicks hatched in November, joining the family of penguins at Moody Gardens Aquarium. Easily distinguished from other penguin species, Macaroni penguins display distinctive bright yellow and black feathers at the top of the head.
The first chick hatched on Nov. 6 weighing 62 grams, and the second hatched on Nov. 9 weighing 124 grams. The proud penguin parents are Bleu, a male who came to Moody Gardens from Montreal, and Feta, who arrived at Moody Gardens in 2016 from SeaWorld San Diego.
The humorous names are noticeably plays on the species name. “We like to have a bit of fun with it,” said Maggie Reynolds, a senior biologist at the facility.
“We named the first generation of adult Macaroni penguins after cheeses, so the parents of these chicks are named Feta and Bleu because they were some of the original group. The chicks that we’ve had since then are named after pastas.” Those include Farfalle, Gnocchi, Manicotti, Ziti, and Penne.
“They don’t mind what we call them as long as we give them some attention and provide for all of their needs.”
There is an interesting reason behind the vast weight difference of the two chicks, which are biological siblings.
“This type of species lay two eggs each breeding season,” explains Reynolds. “Sometimes, they’re both fertile, and sometimes only one or neither are. Macaronis will often lay the first egg, and then three or four days later, before they lay the next egg, they kick that first egg out of the nest and break it.”
“What we do before they lay that second egg is take the first egg and put it into an incubator in our office. The staff turns the egg about five times a day to mimic what the parents would do. The larger of these chicks was the one in the incubator while the parents had that second egg and hatched it. Luckily, both of the eggs were fertile.”
The eggs took about five weeks to hatch. But this time there were special circumstances surrounding the chicks that offered a unique opportunity.
Normally, when the egg is in a “pip” stage, or beginning to break out of its shell, it is returned to the parents. In this case, one chick is being raised by its biological parents, and one is being raised by foster parents.
“A neighboring pair broke their second egg, and nothing was inside literally the day before Blue and Feta’s second egg began to hatch. We knew the pair who lost their eggs could raise a chick because they had in the past, so we gave the second egg to the foster pair. That way each could focus on raising one chick.”
Reynolds explained that keeping up with feeding two chicks, as well as themselves, could be exhausting for parents. The parents eat fish, partially digest it and then regurgitate it into the chicks’ mouths.
“Think about putting fish in a blender - sort of fish mush,” she said. “Both chicks have done very well.”
Because there is no visible way to determine the sex of the chicks, a DNA test will be performed at a later date to reveal their gender.
“Once they get a little older and can walk around, we’ll put them in our holding room for their safety. We don’t want them to walk into the water since they don’t have adult waterproof feathers and aren’t sure where to get out of the water. At that point, they’re usually big enough to eat whole fish.”
Before that stage, the penguin chicks do more wobbling than waddling, and they don’t stand upright for about a month. Starting off with a layer of downy feathers to keep the chicks warm, adult plumage comes in after two and a half to three months. The characteristic yellow feathers begin to appear after about one year.
Macaroni penguins, which are native to the Sub-Antarctic region of the world, are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, and colonies are decreasing in the wild due to factors such as climate change and overfishing.
“By having these birds in our collection and showing the public how important these issues are, we are able to share the many ways that these populations can be helped in nature,” said Aquarium Curator Diane Olsen.
Each successful hatch adds to Moody Gardens’ mission of education and conservation.
“Increasing the number of birds in our collection allows us to have greater diversity for breeding pairs in the future, and also allows us to be able to send birds to other facilities to diversify their populations,” Olsen said.
In addition to the Macaroni penguins, five other species including Gentoo, Chinstrap, King, and Northern and Southern Rockhopper penguins also call the South Atlantic Exhibit home.
The chicks can currently be viewed in person on exhibit, or on the Penguin Webcam at www.MoodyGardens.org.