Henry Vilas Zoo welcomes 2 penguin chicks

MADISON, Wis. — The Henry Vilas Zoo announced Wednesday that they’ve welcomed two female African penguin chicks in mid-January.

According to a news release, the hatching season for African penguins coincides with Wisconsin’s cold winter. Because the chicks are born with a soft downy coat that offers little heat retention, the chicks will remain indoors until April when they are set to make their public debut. It will take about 90 days until their adult waterproof feathers grow in, at which point the chicks will learn how to swim.

A penguin chick

The zoo’s lead keeper Gary Hartlage said that while the baby’s are still young, primary care of the chicks is left to their penguin parents.

“They’re the ones that are incubating the eggs when they hatch. They’re feeding the chicks, they’re keeping them warm. They’re doing all the hard work. All we really do is make sure that the parents are taking care of them and that the chicks are gaining weight necessarily everyday,” Hartlage said.

The parents seem to be doing their jobs as the chicks have already grown considerably since their birth in January. 

Hartlage said, this rapid growth is pretty common for the species.

“They don’t really grow, they just explode in size,” he added.

A penguin chick

Over the past 30 years, the worldwide African penguin population has declined by 60% due to over-fishing, human disturbance, oil spills and climate change, according to the release. Recent counts estimate there are less than 17,000 breeding pairs left in the wild.

Henry Vilas Zoo participates in a Species Survival Plan developed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to oversee population management of certain species.

“Our animal care experts have been working with other AZA facilities to help conserve African penguin populations for decades,” said Zoo Director Ronda Schwetz. “Our current lead keeper, Gary Hartlage, has helped HVZ raise several chicks for the SSP over the past 10 years and has participated directly in penguin conservation efforts in South Africa. We couldn’t be more proud or fortunate to have such dedicated and talented animal care staff here at our zoo.”

The zoo also hosts African Penguin Awareness Day in October to educate the public on the species and raise money for their partners at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said. “We are proud of the long history Henry Vilas Zoo has with penguin conservation. Many thanks to our staff for taking care of these newest additions and keeping them healthy.”

The zoo will soon be seeking public input in naming one of the chicks via their Facebook page. People will be invited to vote on several potential names nominated by zoo staff later this month.