Sunday, August 7, 2016

A penguin encounter

Last month, as boxes of clay penguins were piling up for the Potters' Penguin Project, I wondered whether one could see real live penguins anywhere in North Carolina. Google quickly pointed me to the Greensboro Science Center, where one can not only see African penguins in the "Sciquarium" but also experience a "Penguin Encounter." So I made reservations, and on a blisteringly hot Saturday two weeks ago, E and I headed to Greensboro with friends.

African penguins are found along the coast of southern Africa. Their status went from vulnerable to endangered on the IUCN redlist in 2010, with their decline attributed to overfishing and changes in prey sources. The African penguins at the Greensboro Science Center are part of a Species Survival Plan that coordinates and monitors breeding to ensure genetic diversity. The Science Center currently has 20 penguins, with space for 25, and has successfully bred nine chicks, some of which have been sent to other zoos.

The penguins we encountered up close were juveniles: Pat (female) and Nigel (male). Nigel wasn't wearing a tag because he was bulking up to molt. We weren't permitted to hold the penguins ourselves--both for our safety and that of the birds--but we were able to pet Pat while a keeper held her, and we were all surprised to learn that penguins have surprisingly silky, soft feathers.

Penguins are social, interactive birds, with individual personalities and individual relationships with the keepers.

African penguins are also called Jackass penguins because of the sounds they make.

The keepers were generous with their time and answered all of our many questions, and it was thrilling to meet these beautiful birds up close. We'll likely head back next spring for the Science Center's Tuxedo Trot, a 5K fundraiser for SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds).

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