Open 9 am - 5 pm

Say hi to Calista and Carmen, the two newest additions to our Magellanic penguin colony. The sisters, who hatched in May, spend more and more time in the Polar Play Zone habitat each day, getting to know the other birds. The rest of the time, they hang out in a special penguin reserve area behind the scenes, where their stories started.

Fuzzy penguin chicks are held on the laps of two Shedd trainers.

Breeding-season bower

Last year, the penguin team converted a small room behind the penguin habitat into a cozy breeding area. Four private covered nooks, furnished with smooth stones and twigs for nest building, resemble the burrows or protected places used by Magellanics in the wild. The room also has a shallow pool in the center. It’s a place where trainers can encourage potential new pairs and help strengthen existing ones, away from the often-raucous competition of breeding season in the exhibit.

“We tried to put our more promising breeders in the reserve area for a couple of reasons,” said Lana Gonzalez, manager of sea otters and penguins. “First, the space is easier to monitor with the remote cameras, rather than setting them up in the exhibit. And second, some birds already had nests in the exhibit.”

Magellanic penguin parents JR and Chile stand in front of a black background.

JR, left, and Chile are the biological parents of Calista and Carmen.

The selected pairs were Chile, a female, and JR, who are a new matchup, and Georgia and Howard. Last year, JR was paired with Helena, a match that produced Nia, the first Magellanic penguin successfully bred at Shedd. But JR did not help with incubation. To give the embryonic chick the best chance, the egg was placed with a foster pair, Howard, who had chick-rearing experience, and his mate, Georgia.

This year’s breeding season effort was rewarded with two eggs from JR and Chile. While Magellanic penguins can raise two chicks, Lana and the penguin team wanted to maximize each new bird’s chances, so the first egg, No. 420, was left with the biological parents, and the second, No. 421, was placed with Howard and Georgia. It might sound like a soap opera, but, Lana said, “A lot of management decisions go into breeding season and deciding where to put the eggs.”

Switched (back) at birth

But first, the eggs spent about 35 days in an incubator, where they basked in controlled temperature and humidity, monitored visually as well as by sensors that would send an alarm to Lana and her team if the climate conditions went out of range. To keep the two adult pairs engaged in nurturing behavior, they were each given an artificial egg to brood.

“We candled the eggs regularly to monitor development, and we switched them into the nests about five days before the pip date”—the day each chick was expected to start pecking through the eggshell after an approximately 40-day incubation. “Then we kept an eye on the eggs to see that the chicks pipped and hatched.”

No. 420, Calista, hatched May 17, and No. 421, Carmen, broke out of her eggshell May 20.

Under the glow of a heat lamp, one of the days-old penguin chicks gets an exam.

Under the glow of a heat lamp, one of the days-old chicks gets an exam.

This time around, JR’s parental instincts kicked in, but Chile monopolized the egg. After Calista hatched, Lana said both birds “did great” caring for the chick for the first week or two, then JR kept Chile from the chick, and more decisions had to be made.

“I’d would have loved for them to work it out, but we had to manage the situation,” she said. “We ended up doing shared custody, rotating which parent was with the chick during the day and at night.” It worked because daily weigh-ins showed that the chick was consistently gaining weight, a critical milestone. And the arrangement still allowed JR and Chile to hone their parenting skills. Meanwhile, the more experienced Howard and Georgia raised their chick without any drama.

For six weeks, new chicks are fed a slurry of their parents’ most recent meal, neatly regurgitated into their waiting mouths. At 3- to 4-weeks old, when Calista and Carmen were developed enough to also take small chunks of fish, Lana and her team started co-feeding alongside the parents, simultaneously weaning and training the young birds.

By the end of June, the chicks were weaned. As in the wild, the parental bonds dissolved, and the parents waddled back to the habitat, where they and the other adult Magellanics went into molt, signaling the end of the breeding season. (Nia, last year’s chick, is now resplendent in her first adult plumage.)

Two fuzzy magellanic penguin chicks lie on a fluffy white towel.
fuzzy penguin chicks stand in front of a rocky wall.

From reserved to socialized

Still in the reserve area, Calista and Carmen didn’t lack company or stimulation. “From the time they started eating voluntarily from us, we’ve worked on their husbandry behaviors,” Lana said. During feeding sessions, the birds began doing foot exams and stethoscope and nail clipper desensitization, which enables them to participate in their own health care. They’ve even been chaperoned on behind-the-scenes field trips to meet aquarium staffers, a prequel to eventual aquatic presentations.

The chicks have also had visits from other Magellanics. “We’re working on acclimating them to the colony, one or two birds at a time,” Lana said. “We started with the more docile birds, and we’re slowly transitioning to some that might be less welcoming to them on exhibit. Calista and Carmen have to learn how to socialize and interact with the colony.” Some birds spend the day with the chicks, others are there overnight as Lana and her team rotate the whole Magellanic population through the chick’s reserve area.

Once the sisters had shed their fluffy chick down and grew in waterproof feathers, they took their first swims behind the scenes. “They did good! Calista was the first one to go in when we gave them access. Carmen didn’t go in until around the third time she had access.” Getting out was another thing: They had to learn how to exit the 3-foot-deep pool, which, unlike the Polar Play Zone habitat, does offer a gently sloping ramp.

During this time, the chicks also had their first regular checkup from our veterinarians. Penguins present few clues—at least to the nonpenguin world—about their sex, and traditionally the animal health team would wait until a bird was a sturdy 1-year-old to collect a blood sample to be analyzed. But this year our veterinarians used DNA from dried blood vessels inside the eggshells to discover that the chicks were females.

Two young penguin chicks walk side by side along the rocks of their habitat

Calista and Carmen

Shedd’s penguins’ names are derived from place names within the birds’ native ranges. Calista is named for Isla Calista in the Falkland Islands, and Carmen is named for a coastal city in Argentina, Carmen de Patagones. The names were the top vote-getters in a contest for Shedd Aquarium members, who chose from five pairs of names selected by the Marine Mammals staff.

The sisters’ debut in the exhibit was low-key. Calista and Carmen waddled side by side into the habitat and hopped in the water. “We put them on exhibit in small approximations to make sure they’re calm out there. We do that once or twice a week, gradually increasing the amount of time, before they’re with the colony regularly,” Lana said. In addition to acclimating to 23 other Magellanic penguins, they encountered the bouncy rockhoppers for the first time. Other new experiences included seeing their reflections in the habitat window from the dry area and seeing guests from underwater.

Two sleek-feathered penguin chicks consider the water in their habitat.

Who to look for

Penguin chicks must grow up fast during the short summer breeding season at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere, after which they head out to sea for the winter. Calista and Carmen are now as big as the adult Magellanics, but during their first year, their feathers are grayer and their white markings are less distinct. You should be able to spot them when they are in the exhibit and, because they still stick together, even tell them apart: Carmen is a little rounder and more vocal. Don’t be surprised if they’re at the habitat window, bobbing in the water: They might be getting a close-up look at you getting a close-up look at them.

—Karen Furnweger, web editor