What does it take to raise a baby penguin?

This may be a question you never thought about, but it happens to be right up our alley of expertise here at the New England Aquarium! Much like human babies, penguin chicks are a LOT of work. Here at the Aquarium we have a very successful breeding program with our penguins, and most of the time our penguin parents are the ones doing most of the heavy lifting.

Generally, our pairs will stay with their chicks to raise them until they are old enough to start learning to eat from our hands. We provide the parent birds with plenty of fish to eat and then they regurgitate digested fish for their chicks. But every so often, parenthood can be overwhelming for some first-time parents and they need an assistance. That’s where we—the penguin biologists at the Aquarium—come in. 

rockhopper chicks
Who could resist those faces, right?!

When chicks are young, they are too small to consume whole fish. A penguin parent eats a whole fish, lets it sit in his or her belly until the digestive juices break down the fish, causing it to be nice and mushy. Then the parent will regurgitate that partially digested fish into the chick’s beaks. While we are very dedicated to our penguins, that’s too much of a tall order for us! So instead, we make our chicks a nice fish smoothie that is loaded with nutrient-rich herring, krill, and vitamins. This smoothie, known as penguin chick formula, is then warmed up and squirted into the chick’s beak, simulating how the chick would receive food from its parent.

fish on scale
Ingredients are carefully measured by weight.
blender with fish
Then all that yummy fish is blended so the wee penguins can eat it.

Until they reach their adult size, the chicks are weighed every day, first thing in the morning. Based on this first morning weight, they get 10% of their body weight anywhere from two to five  times a day, depending on their age. Now that may not sound very impressive for a little chick who only weighs a couple hundred grams, but to put it in perspective, if you weighed 150 pounds, that would mean eating 15 pounds of food, several times a day! That’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s essential for penguin chicks to get this volume of food, because they grow extremely fast! Within about 3 months, a penguin chick will grow from a day 1 weight of between 35 to 75 grams to their full adult size. 

penguin chick
From this….
penguin juvenile
...to this, in just a few short months!

As chicks grow into their juvenile stage, they will drop their downy feathers that kept them warm as youngsters, and grow a set of waterproof feathers. After a couple of test runs in a saltwater tub, they will be ready to join the rest of the colony on exhibit. See if you can spot a juvenile penguin on your next visit to the New England Aquarium!

— Miren Schleicher