It’s summer in South Africa, penguin breeding season, and all is not well with the birds.

SANCCOB, a seabird rescue center north of Cape Town, has taken in nearly 300 abandoned or orphaned African penguin chicks, and, for the third consecutive year, Shedd has sent reinforcements from the Marine Mammals department to help with the daily tasks of feeding, medicating and cleaning the young birds.

Animal care specialist Sheri Hendricks had the opportunity to spend three weeks during November and December at SANCCOB, or South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. The not-for-profit scientific organization is dedicated to saving South Africa’s endemic penguins, an endangered species, and other threatened native seabirds.

Before she headed off on the mission halfway around the world, Sheri, who works with the belugas and dolphins, cross-trained to learn penguin anatomy and handling techniques. This is the first year staffers other than those on the penguin team had a chance to help. Sheri’s first lesson: These strong swimmers have solid wing bones, so they pack a whack when they flap. Once at SANCCOB, she received additional training from the center’s staffers and volunteers, then dove into the thick of rescue and rehabilitation work.

Shedd has a long history of responding to animals in urgent need. Through our formal partnership with SANCCOB, we have committed to send help during what is a predictable annual emergency: the mass abandonment of the immature African penguins, a species closely related to our Magellanic penguins.

The penguin parents molt their waterproof feathers before the chicks are ready to leave the nest, so the adults can no longer hunt in the ocean to provide their offspring with food. Newer parents lacking experience might also walk away from the nest, and sometimes parents fall prey to predators while they’re far at sea foraging for the chicks.

The reasons for the mass abandonment are complex, but they are tied at least in part to shortages of the birds’ food due to overfishing (which eventually could deplete fish stocks for humans, too).

While most of the penguins live on two offshore islands, a few mainland colonies exist, including at Stony Point, where SANCCOB receives most of its rescues from and where Sheri stayed.

She says, “I learned that this colony is growing, not necessarily due to successful breeding, but because some island colonies are migrating there. Those island colonies are struggling with fish shortages, but around Stony Point, fish numbers are higher. So the island penguins are finding it a nice place to stay—although fish numbers at Stony Point are already lower than what they used to be.”

At the peak of the nesting season, November and December, the young birds arrive at SANCCOB by the truck- or vanload, carefully contained in tall cardboard boxes. The large open-air center has rows of pens ringing two large 3-foot-deep swimming pools. Incoming chicks are evaluated and, depending on their age and the type of care they need, they’re placed in pens for chicks, “blues” (juvenile birds), those in need of intensive care, and several other categories.

Sheri stayed at an apartment that was a 25-minute walk from SANCCOB, she says, “but I used a bike some Shedd volunteers bought a few years ago, and I got to the facility in about 10 minutes.” Her day began at 8 a.m. with a quick meeting of all the volunteers. “The same as in our morning Marine Mammals meetings at Shedd, the day’s assignments and pertinent information are written on a whiteboard. After the briefing, we suited up for the day in oilskin slickers, arm guards, gloves and Crocs shoes—heavy-duty waterproof gear that protected us against wing slaps, razor-sharp beaks and lots of guano.”

By 8:15, she was helping with the first feed of the day. “An electrolyte, medications and supplements were given to the birds in each pen. We’d also take mats and crates to a cleaning station to be hosed down.” 

At 10, the birds got fish, which was prepared according to guidelines for the needs of each pen. Two hours later, Sheri helped with a formula feed of ground fish, vitamins and powders specific to the needs of the birds in each pen based on the observations of pen supervisors. Many of the older chicks could be hand-fed as they clustered at Sheri’s feet. The younger ones and those juveniles needing extra nutrition had to be held and fed with formula with a syringe, similar to the way mom or dad penguin would insert her or his beak into the chick’s mouth and regurgitate semidigested fish into its gullet. What one penguin parent can do by instinct took two to three volunteers and a pen supervisor to accomplish with each of the 60 to 90 birds in a pen.

Sheri sandwiched in a quick lunch between 1 and 2 p.m., then jumped back in to help with other tasks. While the penguins went for a swim in the pools, she’d clean the pens. She also cleaned syringes and other medical supplies. Administering a “peaceful sleep” treatment involved rubbing medication on the penguins’ heads to repel malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

By 4 it was time for water and medication as needed, and the last formula feed was at 5. By 6:30 Sheri was back on her bike headed home.

“It goes by so quickly, there are so many new stimuli. The days flew by, and I never knew what time it was.”

The highlight of her stay was the release of 14 birds. Although volunteers are not supposed to get attached to the penguins, when she recognized a bird being loaded for the trip back to the beach, she got a thrill. “It’s always neat to see a little face you’ve worked with and put a lot of heart into looking up from a release box,” she says.

“Besides helping individuals, this work is adding to a population of an endangered species, and that’s a great feeling too.”

At the same time that birds were released, the same number of new young birds, many in poor condition, might be rescued from the same beach and taken back to SANCCOB.

During her stay at the Stony Point penguin colony, Sheri saw that a lot of SANCCOB’s work also involves public education, beginning with chatting one-on-one with area residents and Stony Point visitors.

“As this penguin colony has grown,” she says, “there have been more and more interactions with humans. The birds are living in closer proximity to people, nesting in gardens and taking over boat slips.

One day Sheri and Yvonne, a SANCCOB naturalist, encountered a local fisherman and his son about to walk straight into a colony to reach what used to be their favorite fishing spot. With so many birds on the land and in the water, the man was asked to choose a different location to keep from disturbing the penguins, scaring molting birds into the water and possibly entangling them in fishing line.

“The fisherman didn’t understand why, after being allowed to fish in that spot for more than 20 years, he now wasn’t allowed to because of the penguins,” Sheri recalls. “Yvonne explained to him the importance of this endangered species in the balance of the ocean ecosystem, and that if his son and future generations were going to enjoy fishing from the ocean, people need to make changes, even as small as finding a new fishing spot.

“The fisherman wasn’t convinced, but his son had been listening and asked absolutely inspired questions. He said, ‘We can’t fish here anymore, Dad. We’ll be hurting the penguins, which will hurt the ocean!’ ”

Sheri said the pair agreed to fish elsewhere, and the boy said that he would tell his friends as well.

“For me, it really brought home the message of connecting people to the natural world and inspiring them to make a difference—in a completely different way than I am used to. Humans so often think of things as ‘their world’ or ‘their ocean,’ but being able to make the connection that we share these resources was a really unforgettable experience.”

Karen Furnweger, web editor