Shedd Aquarium’s social media posts are proof: When the guests are away, the penguins will play! While Shedd is closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the wide-open public areas are great places for our Southern Hemisphere birds to take enriching constitutionals and expand their world views—to the Caribbean, Amazon, Philippines and Pacific Northwest. Three of them, rockhoppers Wellington, Edward and Annie, have become internet celebrities in at least as many places.
Thirty-two-year-old Wellington already has the distinction of being Shedd’s oldest penguin, surpassing fellow rockhopper Drake by three days and Drake’s mate, Magdalena, by five. Super seniors for their species, they are from the Abbott Oceanarium’s original rockhopper colony, which arrived in March 1991, a month ahead of the huge addition’s opening.
Like most of Shedd’s penguins, Wellington’s name reflects a geographic location where his species is found, in this case, Isla Wellington, or Wellington Island, in Chile. (Hatched at SeaWorld/Orlando, his ancestry actually goes back to Argentina’s Falkland Islands.)
During the penguin’s chaperoned “field trips,” an animal care expert is always ready with a spray bottle to spritz him with water to keep him cool. Wellington still negotiates the more rugged terrain of the penguin habitat in characteristic rockhopper fashion, bouncing from rock to rock and plunging into the water feet first, thanks to excellent lifelong care, supplements of glucosamine and, in 2017, cataract surgery on both eyes.
Lana Gonzalez, manager of penguins and sea otters, said that his caregivers noticed Wellington’s eyes were cloudy and, increasingly, he was relying on his beak to feel an offered fish and to navigate his rocky habitat. Our veterinarians confirmed that Wellington had cataracts in both eyes, and a veterinary ophthalmologist performed the double surgery.
Post-op, she said, “He had a big regimen of medications. In the beginning, he received three types of eyedrops three times a day.” Thanks to Shedd’s husbandry training, which enables animals to cooperate in their own medical care, Wellington accepted the drops, which tapered off over the course of about a month.
Lana said the penguin care team and veterinarians could gauge the success of the surgery by how well Wellington now tracks his meals—10 to 20 small herring and capelin a day, depending on his activities—from the time the fish are pulled from the feeding bucket to when they’re dropped into his waiting mouth. He’s among five penguins and a great horned owl that have had their vision restored by cataract surgery.
Lana calls Wellington “a pretty laid-back, easygoing little penguin.” She added, “He’s done a great job as the team incorporated him into the Penguin Encounters last year. He allows guests to touch his feathers and participates in the photo opportunity.”
And he takes a lively interest in Shedd’s other residents during his field trips. Shedd’s social media followers watched him investigate Amazon Rising’s high-water habitats and enjoyed his interest in the large, silvery disk tetras. “The movement catches his eye,” Lana says.
Wellington does not currently have a mate, but two of his offspring live at Shedd: Bosco, hatched in 1997, and Edward, who hatched a year earlier.
Edward and Annie
While Edward is Wellington’s biological offspring, he was raised by Magdalena and a different male rockhopper. This isn’t unusual. The penguin team closely observes pairs’ parenting skills, and if necessary, they will place eggs with more experienced birds to give the eggs, and the resulting chicks, the best chance for success. Edward was named for the Prince Edward Islands in the subantarctic Indian Ocean.
Annie hatched at Shedd in 2005.Interestingly, as an egg, she was placed with Wellington’s offspring Bosco and a female that also was not her biological parent. She was named for Annie Island in the Falklands.
While some birds get a little encouragement from the penguin team matchmakers, Edward and Annie got together on their own, and they’ve been a bonded pair for several years. They are the parents of two chicks, including Diego, a male who hatched in 2015.
A rockhopper pair shares the duties of incubating the egg and brooding the chick, carried out within a ring of rocks and twigs carefully constructed by the male. The low wall of stones keeps the egg from rolling off the birds’ preferred ledge nesting habitat.
Lana said Edward and Annie were easygoing, like most of the rockhoppers. “When we do a deep cleaning of the penguin habitat and we’re caring for the birds in the reserve area, Annie will climb into our laps or jump onto our backs if we’re crouched down with the birds. It’s kind of cute.” But don’t look for penguin yoga any time soon.
She continued, “Edward likes to hang out with Annie a lot. On their field trips, Edward usually takes the lead, and Annie follows him wherever he goes.” The 20-inch-tall birds have been seen strolling by the Caribbean Reef habitat and, most recently, touring the Abbott Oceanarium, getting eye to eye with those natives of the other polar region, the beluga whales.
They also checked out Polar Play Zone, across from the penguin habitat. “We put them on the play area,” Lana said, replacing for the time the usual tots dressed in little plush penguin suits. Then it was on to something completely different, Wild Reef.
These forays through the aquarium expand on the penguins’ frequent exercise and enrichment in front of guests during aquatic presentations, behind the scenes in the Oceanarium hallways and even in the office suite atop the Oceanarium, to the delight of team members working there. Sometimes the rockhoppers are joined by the larger Magellanic penguins.
When Shedd Aquarium reopens, you can meet a penguin in person by signing up for one of the regularly scheduled Penguin Encounters. You can support the top-quality care we provide to Wellington, Edward, Annie and the other animals that call Shedd home by symbolically adopting a penguin. Or support Shedd’s mission with a general donation, which helps fund our Animal Response Team’s rescue and rehabilitation efforts in the Southern Hemisphere for wild penguins in urgent need.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor
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