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North Georgia Wildlife Park's baby penguin needs a name. Here's how you can help
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An African penguin was born Oct. 5, 2021, at the North Georgia Wildlife Park in Cleveland. He or she has yet to be named, or thrown a proper gender reveal party, as the latter is determined by blood work results. The zoo is hosting a naming contest on its Facebook page, where individuals can share their favorite baby penguin names ahead of the bird’s livestreamed gender reveal on Jan. 16, 2022. - photo by Rachel Estes

There’s a new bird of a feather in town, and local animal lovers not only have a chance to meet him or her, but to also help pick out its name.

Hatched at North Georgia Wildlife Park on Oct. 5, the three-month-old African penguin is the fifth to join the White County petting zoo’s tuxedo-feathered colony, and the firstborn chick of parents Beans and Mabel.

Whether the nursery’s color scheme is pink or blue, however, is still a mystery.

According to the zoo’s assistant director Melissa Burns, because male and female penguins are strikingly similar in appearance, their caretakers have to resort to blood work to determine their gender. 

“You can’t tell a penguin’s gender by looks — males and females look exactly the same,” Burns said. 

Baby Penguin’s lab results are in, Burns said, and they’ll be revealed in a Facebook Live gender reveal party Sunday, Jan. 16 at 6:30 p.m.

In the meantime, the zoo is holding a naming contest via Facebook; folks can toss their favorite male, female and gender neutral names into the virtual hat from which the baby’s name will be drawn.

Opportunities to meet the penguin face to face also abound.

The zoo offers a “Penguin and Friends” encounter, which introduces guests to the chick and some of its feathered friends. Tickets for the experiences can be booked online.

On weekdays when the zoo is closed to the public, guests can also choose between several up-close and personal VIP tours.

African penguins 101

African penguins are an endangered species whose origins lie in the southern part of the continent. Unlike emperor penguins, their larger Antarctic cousins, African penguins’ ideal temperature is 50- to 70-degree weather, making North Georgia an ideal place for their kind to call home, Burns noted.

On average, full-grown African penguins weigh about 6 to 8 pounds, according to Burns. They’re born weighing between 70 and upwards of 1,000 grams, packing on an additional 150 to 200 grams each day during their initial weeks in the animal kingdom. 

“Penguins do so much growth in those first two weeks,” Burns said, explaining that such rapid infantile growth bolsters their chances of survival in the wild.

At present, the baby penguin at North Georgia Wildlife Park weighs just shy of 6.5 pounds. 

While he or she is tailing the grown-ups in size, they still have a few more baby feathers to lose.

“It’s pretty much full-grown in size, but it doesn’t have adult plumage yet,” Burns said. “It’s losing its baby plumage and then it will get its juvenile feathers that it’ll keep for up to two years. Then after two years they’ll molt those feathers and get their adult feathers.”

Once he or she loses their “baby fluff,” they’ll be formally introduced to bodies of water, where they’ll start learning how to swim “and doing all those penguin-y things.”

“They have natural instincts, but in the wild, a giant thing of water is intimidating,” Burns said. “They have to get a little practice, that way they get used to what they’re doing. Their instincts kick in pretty quick once they realize, ‘Oh wait, I got this.’”

According to Burns, penguins can spend up to half their lives splashing around in the water, and can diver underwater for two and a half minutes at a time.

Besides being avid swimmers, penguins are generally very social creatures, Burns said, and the wildlife park’s little guy or gal is no exception.

“They definitely each have their own personalities,” she said. “So far, this one has been snuggly. It likes to be involved and in the middle of everything.”

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A three-month-old African penguin, the youngest member of North Georgia Wildlife Park's five-penguin colony, gets a hug from zookeeper Virginia Brinkley on Jan. 5, 2022. - photo by Rachel Estes
Protecting endangered species

According to Burns, only about 52,000 African penguin species are left in the wild. To her knowledge, North Georgia Wildlife Park and the Georgia Aquarium are the only facilities in the state that house penguins.

In the wild, African penguins face habitat loss or displacement as the guano they use to build their dens is also a coveted fuel source, according to Burns. To ensure African penguins are protected in their natural habitat, North Georgia Wildlife Park supports Dyer Island Conservation Trust, which provides the birds with artificial nests and rehabs those in need of help until they’re ready to be released into a safe environment.

“The importance of this species is we want to keep them around for a long time,” Burns said.

“Part of the reason we’re super excited to have them here is because we can talk about penguins and the problems they have in the wild. They have a lot of loss of habitat, they have pollution in the water so they’re picking up things and swallowing things they shouldn’t.”

According to Burns, the zoo aims to shed light on smaller, oft overlooked species and the issues they face. Aside from penguins, North Georgia Wildlife Park also cares for roughly 400 exotic animals including endangered New Guinea singing dogs and ring-tailed lemurs.

“We love being able to share with the public about some of the lesser-known animals,” Burns said. “Everybody knows about elephant issues, and those are super important, but some of the smaller species are, too. We love being able to focus on some of these smaller species and share their stories and how they impact things. As humans, we’re caretakers of these guys, so we should care about their habitats and homes.”

Other random penguin facts:
  • In the summer, penguins eat up to 2 pounds of fish a day to bulk up for winter.

  • The average lifespan of a penguin is 15-20 years.

  • In the wild, penguins’ colonies range anywhere from 200 birds to several thousand.

  • Baby penguins can’t eat on their own for the first three to four weeks of their lives; they rely on their parents’ regurgitated food for nourishment during this time. When parents have a new chick to feed, their fish intake doubles.

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