GREENSBORO — Though it’s coming from a plastic crate in an artificial cave, the bird cry sounds like something you’d hear at the coast.
The coast of Africa, to be exact.
Just over a year after opening, the Carolina SciQuarium has its first African penguin chicks.
But if you’re picturing something tiny, think again. At one month old, the gray down-covered chicks are quite a bit more than a handful. The larger one, Deacon, is about the size of a small chicken.
Breeding pair Brenton and Pikkewynne are the parents of the two chicks hatched Aug. 27 and Aug. 30 in the off-exhibit breeding den adjacent to Penguin Point.
“This is a big deal for us,” senior keeper Carmen Murray said. “We’re really excited.”
Although it was a brand new facility, the SciQuarium received breeding recommendations within six months from the Species Survival Plan. The Science Center is part of the plan, administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which regulates the breeding of endangered species in captivity to ensure diversity in the gene pool.
Though many of the females were young, the penguin pairs started producing eggs shortly thereafter.
“Some of the eggs weren’t viable and some of the chicks didn’t make it, which is completely normal when they are first learning to be parents,” Murray said.
Once the chicks are born, they are most fragile in the first month of life. If they make it past that mark, they will likely survive.
That’s why the Science Center held off announcing the birth until now.
“We held our breath for the first 30 days,” Murray said.
African penguin pairs take turns sitting on the eggs, and the newborn chicks nestle underneath them until they are large enough to regulate their own body temperature, Murray said.
At birth, they were small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. By the time they join the other penguins in the exhibit — sometime around November or December — they’ll be the same size as the adult penguins.
But you’ll still be able to tell them apart.
When they lose their downy coats and grow waterproof feathers, the colors will be blackish gray and off-white. Only after they moult again at age 11/2 will they take on the stark glossy black-and-white coloring of the adult penguins.
Their parents are back on exhibit, each marked with a red tag.
Now Murray and other keepers are bonding with the penguins to acclimate them to humans. She and the other keepers hand-feed them smelt, small fish that the penguin chicks swallow whole.
So far, Deacon is the only one with a name. A Science Center patron bought naming rights in honor of a friend — and faithful Wake Forest fan — who died of ALS. The keepers won’t know the sex of either penguin until they do a DNA test. Then they’ll decide what to name the other one.
The births come at a good time, said Glenn Dobrogosz, the executive director of the science center. While African penguins breed well in captivity, their numbers are plummeting in the wild.
“The African penguin will be the focal species for international conservation next year because their numbers have dropped so dramatically,” Dobrogosz said. “So breeding in captivity will become even more important.”
The penguin chicks must get their waterproof feathers and learn to swim before they move into the exhibit. But visitors can see them on the backstage tour in just a few weeks.
The Science Center is investing $50,000 in the penguin encounter room to make it truly interactive, Dobrogosz said.