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Shedd Aquarium is home to 30 raucous, robust, riveting penguins in the Polar Play Zone habitat on the lower level of the Abbott Oceanarium.

You don’t have to look too closely to notice that two species inhabit the re-created rocky shoreline habitat that serves both well: the rockhoppers (Eudyptes chrysocome), which are native to subantarctic islands in the South Atlantic, Indian and South Pacific Oceans, and the larger Magellanics (Spheniscus magellanicus), found along the rugged coasts of southern South America.

Spring, when the breeding season is in full swing, is a great time to visit and get better acquainted with the two colonies as well as with a few individuals in each.

Rockhopper penguins have short stumpy legs but can jump from rock to rock on shore quite easily.
Two rockhopper penguins sit together, shwon from the chest up. One has its head tucked into its stout body, the other has its beak lifted and is peering at the camera.

Rockhopper penguins

Shedd has had rockhopper penguins since the Oceanarium opened in 1991. In fact, three of the original birds are still here: Wellington, Drake and Magdalena. At 30 (Wellington is the oldest by a few days), they are among the most senior penguins in U.S. zoos and aquariums, benefiting from lifelong excellent care and advances in veterinary geriatric medicine.

Rockhoppers were named for their unique mode of locomotion. Unlike other penguin species, these 1½-foot-tall birds hop—almost bounce—from place to place, a useful adaptation to the rocky terrain of their windswept islands.

Rockhoppers are also rock nesters. Each March, before breeding season, our penguin experts place a big pile of small river rocks in the center of the penguin habitat. Then they stand back and watch the competition begin.

A rockhopper penguin, distinguished by its yellow crested feathers, holds nest materials in its beak for nesting and mating season.

The males scramble for the choicest rocks with which to build their nests. A carefully arranged circle of stones keeps a pair’s egg from rolling off a nesting ledge during the 32- to 34-day incubation period. A nice nest will attract, or reinforce the pair bond with, a female. Hauling the rocks one by one in their beaks, the males are not above stealing better-looking building materials from their neighbors.

Rockhoppers also use their distinctive crest feathers in mating displays, shaking their heads rapidly to make the long, chrome yellow feathers whirl.

Shedd’s first successful rockhopper hatching was in 1995. Since then we’ve welcomed 13 more chicks, including female Ruggles in 2013 and male Diego in 2015. Both are the offspring of mated pair Edward and Annie, but the first chick was hatched and raised by Drake and Magdalena.

It’s not unusual for caregivers to move an egg from its biological parents to an experienced foster pair to improve hatching success. Indeed, it’s a standard practice if a pair lays two fertile eggs to place one with another proven pair so that each chick will get one-on-one parental care.

“We saw that Annie was leaving the nest a lot when it was almost time for the chick to hatch,” says Lana Vanagasem, manager of penguins and sea otters. “She and Edward had never raised a chick before, so we were not sure if she would participate in rearing it. We thought it would be better to place the egg with a more experienced pair.” Two years later, she adds, Edward and Annie did successfully raise their biological chick Diego.

Trainer Christy Sterling leans down to get eye to eye with a fluffy rockhopper penguin chick.

Male rockhopper penguin Diego, was born at Shedd in 2015.

Four rockhopper penguins, distinguished by their yellow crested feathers, in front of birthday-themed frozen treats that spell out "Happy 30th Birthday!"

Drake, Magdalena, Pebbles and Wellington, are the first penguins to turn 30 at the aquarium.

Ruggles was named by Shedd members. While the bird hasn’t bred yet, Lana says she “is experimenting in hanging out in nests.” She adds, “But Ruggles is still very independent and curious about what’s going on in other areas of the exhibit.”

Wandering around seems to be what young adult rockhoppers do. “Diego just does his own thing, too,” Lana says, sometimes getting into mischief with the older birds. “He is still learning to wait his turn when we come out to feed. Sometimes he tries to push ahead of the other birds to eat first.” She suggests that he is trying out exerting dominance as he begins to find his place in the rockhopper colony.

Diego has already found a place in the penguin parade during aquatic presentations in the Abbott Oceanarium. Both he and Ruggles recently joined the marching Magellanics.

A magellanic penguin floats easily in the water of its habitat, peering through the window at a photographer.
Magellanic penguins have short, squat legs and waddle awkwardly around on land, but their torpedo-shaped bodies and thin, crescent-shaped wings propel them easily through water!

Magellanic penguins

In the wild, Magellanic penguins hunt for fish in the rich waters of the Strait of Magellan, which separates mainland South America and Tierra del Fuego. The birds and the water passage were named for the Portuguese explorer who was the first European to discover both of them. (Magellan’s crew described the 2-foot tall penguins as black geese.)

Magellanics are among the temperate-weather penguin species—those that don’t live in the southern polar region—but their range overlaps with that of the colder-climate rockhoppers. Within Shedd’s penguin habitat, the two species intermingle but also have staked-out territories. Lana points out that the Magellanics pretty much stick to the sea level terrain while the rockhoppers prefer areas a ledge or two up for hanging out and nesting.

The current group of Magellanics includes eight adults that moved into the habitat after the Abbott Oceanarium renovation in 2009. They were soon joined by five more that had arrived at Shedd as eggs from the San Francisco Zoo, gingerly chaperoned by Lana on the flight to Chicago. Another clutch of eggs from the zoo in 2010 resulted in six more chicks. Additional adult birds were added in 2017.

“In addition to several birds that paired off on their own, we’re seeing if we can help create new pairs or strengthen certain existing pairs.”

Lana Vanagasem, manager of penguins and sea otters

It was a bit of a wait until the Magellanics matured to breeding age. Lana says that the penguin team has seen birds pairing up for the last couple of years and beginning to lay eggs. For young birds, the first few nesting seasons might not produce fertile eggs and are more like practice runs. Lana is still awaiting the first successful Magellanic hatching.

Magellanic penguin chick Nia behind the scenes with her parents.
When a Magellanic penguin molts, a new layer of feathers grows in and the old feathers fall off in clumps. The penguins can often be seen itching away at loose patches of feathers during their molts.

“This year we’re doing something slightly different and cool,” Lana says. “In addition to several birds that paired off on their own, we’re seeing if we can help create new pairs or strengthen certain existing pairs.”

To do that, four Magellanic pairs have been moved to their own private areas behind the scenes. They include two established pairs and two new ones. “We put them together to see if they would show affinity toward each other, nest, copulate and lay eggs. It’s been fun to watch. We’ve seen nest building so far and a few eggs. It will be interesting to see if the things we’re trying will help achieve successful hatching.”

At least two other Magellanic pairs are nesting on the right side of the habitat, one up a level in front, the other at ground level almost around the back. This year the penguin team added sprigs of lavender to the other provided nesting materials. “Both species have utilized the lavender,” Lana says. “It’s a more natural nesting material. In the wild, Magellanics dig a burrow under a bush or use grasses and branches to make a nest.” The lavender twigs are visible under the females, which lie flat on their tummies. But it’s hard to tell if the penguins appreciate the herb for its aroma. Research does indicate that, unlike a lot of birds, penguins have a well-developed sense of smell, using it to identify (so as not to mate with) kin.

Lana has been working with Shedd’s penguins since 2004. “I enjoy building the relationships,” she says. “When I go out to the exhibit, several birds run over to me and want attention and tactile. That’s a highlight for me.” She says breeding season also keeps her job new and exciting. “I enjoy the mystery and anticipation of seeing who pairs up and if they have successful breeding.

Helping penguins in need

Lana was one of the first experts on Shedd’s Animal Response Team to help with the rehabilitation of African penguins at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB, in Cape Town. Every year, hundreds of African penguin chicks are abandoned in their nests when the parents experience early molt due to changing environmental conditions and can no longer hunt to feed their offspring. SANCCOB leads a rescue effort for the chicks, and several Animal Response Team members have traveled to South Africa to lend a hand.

The endangered African penguins are closely related to Magellanics. “Being familiar with handling our penguins, it was an easy transition to being able to handle the wild ones for the procedures they needed and feedings,” she says.

The early molts aren’t the only factors that have decimated African penguin populations. These birds also face the same issues that threaten all penguin species: oil spills, loss of nesting habitat, depleted food sources due to human overfishing, entangling marine debris and warming ocean temperatures due to climate change.

“There are ways people can make a difference for penguins,” Lana says. “Eat sustainably sourced seafood. Avoid the single-use plastic products that can wind up as trash polluting our oceans, and instead switch to reusable bottles and bags, and ‘Shedd the straw.’ And, if you can do it, take a few weeks to volunteer at SANCCOB. It’s not just worthwhile, it’s a life-changing experience with the penguins.”