Humboldt Penguins

Na Piongainí Humboldt

Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus humboldti)

This species is found in South America and found predominately in Peru.  The area where they live is associated with a  cold, nutrient-rich  current, called the Humboldt Current. This current flows northward from Antarctica and is vital to the productivity of plankton and  the abundance of fish.

This species is known in Peru as the “pajaro-niño”, which translates to “baby-bird”. This nickname has been given to them due to their waddling gait and outstreched  wings when on the beach , suggesting the image of an infant waddling around.

Their nearest relatives are the African penguin, the Magellanic penguin and the Galápagos penguin.

This species is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN with no population recovery plan in place. The current population is composed of 23,800 mature individuals and is decreasing (IUCN assessed, 2020). Humboldt penguins depends on commercially exploited fish species, including anchovies. With overfishsing, less fish are available than before to support the feeding of penguin colonies, leading to a decline in numbers. They are also susceptible to entanglement in fishing nets. Humboldt penguin populations were first devastated by the mining of guano deposits — in which the species prefers to nest — for fertilizer.  Changes in ocean currents and temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, apparently driven by global warming, appear to be a grave threat to the species’ survival.

Humboldt penguins nest on islands and rocky coasts, burrowing holes in guano and sometimes using scrapes or caves nests in loose colonies.  They lay eggs from March to December. Chicks hatch generally two days apart. One parent will mind the chick, while the other forages for food. When the chicks are old enough, they will be left alone in the nests while the parents hunt. Chicks fledge after about 70 to 90 days and moult into adult feather about a year later. Humboldt penguins are monogamous and recognize their partner in the colony through distinct vocal cues.

They are medium-sized penguins, growing to 56–70 cm long and a weight of 2.9 to 6 kg.  It is hard to tell them apart because plumage in the sexes is the same, but in general, the males are heavier and larger than the females. The male may also have a longer bill than the female. Juveniles have dark heads and no breast-band.

Humboldt penguins live approximately 15-20 years in zoos. Little is known about their lifespan in the wild. In the ocean, adults and juveniles may become food for sharks, fur seals and sea lions. On land, feral cats and dogs and foxes, snakes, and rodents will prey on eggs and chicks.

Around their beaks, Humboldt penguins have patches of bare skin on their faces , which allows them to regulate their temperatures. When the penguins get too hot, they blush, which helps them to cool down.

Humboldt penguins have tongues with small barbs pointing backwards, which help to grasp prey and prevent it from slipping away.

A penguin’s black and white feathers are for self-protection in the sea and is a type of  camouflage called countershading. The black feathers on their backs help camouflage them into the dark ocean waters blow ( from predators looking down at them). The white feathers on their bellies help camouflage them into the light-coloured surface of the water above (from predators below them). 

Penguins can drink salt water because they have special glands in their nose that excrete  salt. They use sharp claws on their webbed feet to grip onto rocks as they move across the rugged landscape. 

Throughout the day, Humboldts engage in a vital activity: they preen their feathers. They gather oil from their preening gland and apply it to their feathers and the edges of the flippers. This keeps their feathers waterproof, which helps the penguin insulate itself from the cold.