Humboldt Penguin

Humboldt Penguin

[ Spheniscus humboldti ]

Quick Facts

BODY LENGTH: 26 inches
WEIGHT: 8-9 pounds
WILD DIET: fish (sardines, anchoveta, pilchard), occasionally squid, and crustaceans
ZOO DIET: fish (smelt, capelin, trout, and herring) filled with vitamin supplements
DISTRIBUTION: the western shores of South America, along the coast of Peru and Chile
HABITAT: rocky desert coasts and open seas


Penguins in Peril

Penguins, in the desert?
Most kinds of penguins live where it is cold, but Humboldt penguins are definitely different. They live along the desert coast of Peru and Chile in South America. It is a very unusual environment, and you might not think penguins (or much of anything) would live there. The coast is where one of the world’s driest deserts (in some places it hasn’t rained for 20 years!) meets one of the world’s most fertile oceans.

Humboldt penguins spend most of their time in the ocean, primarily in the Humboldt Current (which they were named after). The Humboldt Current is a long, narrow flow of cool water that runs north from Antarctica. In the ocean, these penguins are graceful and quick swimmers. On land it is another story. They come ashore only to lay eggs and raise their young. While they are on shore they waddle awkwardly, but they are able to hop and jump among the rocks and sand to get around.

Flying under water
Humboldt penguins have a black back and white underside, with a black band along the chest. Their body is plumper in the middle because of a fat layer (blubber) that protects them from the cold. But do not let the fat fool youpenguins have streamlined bodies to cut through water with little resistance. Like all birds, penguins have feathers, but their feathers are modified to help them "fly" through the water. Their feathers are waterproof and keep out the cold. Strong, stiff flippers help them swim up to 14 km per hour (9 mph). Penguins' back flippers do the steering, and they can turn in tight curves to escape predators.

Close quarters
Humboldt penguins are shy but social birds. They live in colonies during the nesting season, and hunt in groups when at sea. Like other social animals, being able to communicate with their neighbor is important, especially in the nesting colony where nests are only a few feet apart! Humboldt penguins communicate through a variety of calls: they bray like a donkey, they trumpet, and they grunt. When two penguins are really close together, they get their message across through body displays, such as flipper waving and bowing.

I’ll have the fish
About ninety five percent of Humboldt penguins’ diet is fish. They catch fish that follow the Humboldt Current a few miles from shore. Catching prey in open-ocean is tricky business, but penguins are skillful hunters. Their first plan of attack is to come in from below a school. Fish have trouble seeing penguins because the birds' have light bellies that are hard to see from below—they blend with the sky. And if the fish is looking down, the penguins’ dark back blends in with the ocean depths below.

Bird droppings = life
Humboldt penguins nest inside burrows they dig in dirt or in guano. Guano is hardened bird droppingsin this case the poop of seagulls and other ocean birdsthat has built up over thousands of years by millions of birds. In the past, the guano was many feet deep and hardened like dirt. It was the perfect place to dig a burrow and lay eggs. Today, the guano beds have been harvested (guano makes great fertilizer for crops) to the point where there are few places left for penguins to nest. Conservationists and others are trying to help find a solution, so penguins and people can use the guano.

Female penguins usually lay two eggs per nest. Her mate helps her incubate the eggs. The pair take 12 hour shifts on the nest for about 39 days, until the eggs hatch. When they hatch, chicks are covered in grayish down feathers and are completely dependent on their parents. The parents carry food in their stomachs and regurgitate it for the chicks. Chicks get their adult feathers by five weeks of age, but they remain dependent on their parents until they are about six months old.

Penguins in peril
Humboldt penguins face several problems in the wild. The harvesting of guano has reduced the number of places for penguins to nest, and that has reduced the number of Humboldt penguins. Some people collect penguin eggs to eat. And although they are experts when it comes to catching fish, penguins lose out when competing with the fishing industry. Penguins may also become entangled in fishing lines.

Humboldt penguins at Brookfield Zoo
The Living Coast, which recreates the west coast of South America, is home to about 30 Humboldt penguins. Brookfield Zoo is the headquarters for the coordinator of the Humboldt penguin Species Survival Plan (SSP). SSPs are cooperative breeding, education, and conservation programs between North American zoos. One goal of the Humboldt penguin SSP is to make sure that their populations in zoos is genetically healthythat there are enough animals from different families around to breed with each other. The SSP coordinator monitors the health of the entire captive population, and makes recommendations to zoos about pairing birds for mating.

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society