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Humboldt Penguin Conservation:
How has the Milwaukee County Zoo and Zoological Society been involved

Researcher collect data about the penguins

The Milwaukee County Zoo has been involved with Humboldt penguin conservation for over 30 years, beginning with its captive population in the 1970’s. The first chick to hatch and survive was in 1987. In order to improve the management of Humboldt penguins in captivity, in 1992 the Milwaukee County Zoo conducted a comparative hematologic and nutritional study between captive and wild Humboldt penguins. The Zoo then initiated a long-term research program in 1994 to study a breeding colony of Humboldt penguins in Algarrobo, Chile.

The ecology and health of these endangered penguins are being studied with the goal of enhancing the overall conservation of this species. It is a multifaceted study that includes nesting and breeding success, chick survival, nest and mate fidelity, and philopatry (fidelity to the island where hatched). The genetic variation between penguin colonies along the Chilean coast was elucidated, and compared to the genetic structure of the North American captive Humboldt penguin population.

Penguin with chicks in an artificial burrow

In November 2012, two chicks were successfully hatched in one of the artificial burrows.

Currently, a project involving the placement of artificial burrows for nesting at Algarrobo was initiated in 2009 with the intent of providing more sturdy nests that can better resist flooding and destruction than the natural dirt burrows. From 2009 to 2010, more than 35 artificial burrows have been placed on the island, especially in areas where burrows have long disappeared, then were monitored to see if Humboldt penguins actually use them. To increase the attractiveness of these previously burrow-less areas to the nesting Humboldt penguins, hand-painted decoys of Humboldt penguins were conspicuously placed in the vicinity of these burrows. The decoys proved to have no major effect and were removed in the next season. Penguins have been seen roosting in the nests, and in 2010, the first breeding pair with eggs was seen. Although chicks did not hatch, we found in 2011 that the nests are being used again, and we are hoping for successful hatching. In April 2012, twenty additional nests were installed for a total of 56 artificial burrows.

A researcher uses binoculars to do a census count

In addition, our Zoo has been coordinating funding for biennial population censuses of the wild penguins in Chile since 1999. These censuses not only provide us information on the size of the wild population, but also allow us to detect trends in population growth or decline, and also population movements, particularly in reference to El Niño weather patterns. This information is critical to understanding the behavior and activity of wild Humboldt penguins. Unfortunately, severe weather and the large earthquake that struck Chile truncated the 2010 census, and an accurate census of the number of Humboldt penguins was not obtained. Plans are currently underway to change the scope and focus of the census. The previous censuses assessed the total number of Humboldt penguins along the Chilean Coast, and these numbers were quite consistent over the past decade ranging from 30,000-36,000 individuals. The new census will try to assess the actual breeding population of Humboldt penguins, not just the total population.

Finally, with the help of our Chilean colleagues, the Zoo has designed and had printed a bilingual (Spanish-English) brochure that gives an overview of the penguins of Chile, their range and distribution, and threats to their survival. We sent these brochures to Chile for use by local ecotourism guides, schools and universities, and tourist areas. We hope that they will be used in some of the primary schools as an educational material to teach the Chilean children about the penguins of their country.

Future plans include developing more educational materials for the schools and the general public. We also would like to begin satellite tracking of adult and juvenile penguins to learn where they go daily to obtain fish to eat, in the hopes of establishing conservation corridors that are protected to diminish the number of penguins entangled in fishing nets. We also would like to determine where adult penguins and juveniles travel to when not nesting.