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Penguin Chick Check-Up

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications
Photos by: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

The two tiniest members of our Humboldt penguin colony received their first exam last week at the Animal Health Department. The chicks—the 49th and 50th Humboldt penguins to hatch at Woodland Park Zoo since 2010—were given a clean bill of health by our animal care experts and Associate Veterinarian Dr. Kelly Helmick. The chicks hatched in July, just days apart, so they are both right at the two month mark. While keepers have been weighing and monitoring their growth and health all along, their first official neonatal exam is an important milestone in their development.

The exam consisted of anesthetizing the young birds to allow veterinary technicians to collect a blood sample, taking a cloacal culture, giving appropriate vaccinations, and injecting a small transponder under the skin. The blood work tells the vets a lot about the health of the penguin chicks, and it’s also the best way to determine their sex at this young age.

Here’s a look at the entire penguin exam process, from start to finish:

The penguins are delivered to the Animal Health Department by their keeper, Celine. They are placed into an animal crate (similar to your pet’s crate at home), and when they arrive you can hear their curious chirps. Celine is by their side throughout the exam to keep them calm. The keepers spend time with the hatchlings each day to get them used to handling and eating fish. The chicks are regularly weighed to make sure they are hitting their growth benchmarks.

First things first veterinary technician Kimberly waves a metal detector across the chick’s belly. Humboldt penguins are notorious for swallowing anything shiny, such as keys and coins which could be hazardous to their health. While most zoo visitors would never toss objects into the penguin exhibit, it has been known to happen—often unintentionally. A metal detector may find coins and potentially sharp metal objects such as screws or bobby pins, which are common and can be very dangerous. A metal detector is not foolproof. If abnormalities are suspected a radiograph may give better indication of foreign body injection.

You might think penguin chicks are adorable, but they make quite feisty patients!

No beep! The chick has passed Kimberly’s test with flying colors.

Next, the chick is anesthetized. Much like a human patient, the chick simply breathes to allow the general anesthesia to work. A tiny penguin-sized oxygen cup is placed over the chick’s beak and face. Unlike a human patient, the penguin chick tries to strike the vet staff.

“We raise them feisty!” jokes Celine. She’s not surprised at the chick’s behavior; the animal has never been outside of the penguin exhibit before and with relatively little contact with people, it isn’t used to the attention. After a few minutes the chick is relaxed and sacked out, ready for the exam.

Celine assists veterinary technicians Barb and Kimberly by laying the penguin belly-down on a soft, pink towel, feet sticking out back. A heart monitor is clipped to the penguin’s toes. To keep the chick cozy during the procedure, Dr. Kelly places a warm water bag over its little legs.

Celine gives tactile pats to the penguin’s chest which helps stimulate normal breathing and encourages inhaling the anesthesia. Seabirds tend to instinctually hold their breath as if diving which could interrupt the anesthesia. Watching and monitoring breathing on a patient during any exam is very important. They all give the bird a few moments to rest before the procedure begins. As veterinary staff performs a quick blood draw and vaccinate the chick against West Nile virus, Celine fills Dr. Kelly in on their daily routine and any health concerns she might have. It's up to the keepers who spend the most time with the animals to tell the vet if anything unusual has occurred. At the moment, all Celine has noted is their growing appetite!

Dr. Kelly places a stethoscope against the penguin’s chest and checks its heartbeat. She then does a closer visual check on its beak, inside the mouth and the eyes. She notes the exam is “unremarkable” which in veterinary language means all is well.

Before the anesthesia wears off, the veterinary technicians must do one last thing. A tiny transponder, about the size of a TicTac, is inserted into the left pectoral muscle. When scanned, this transponder sends short wave radio signals to let keepers or vet staff safely identify each bird. This way, all of the bird’s medical history and records are easily tracked.

As the oxygen cup is removed, the young penguin begins to show signs of awareness. First the feet begin to flick and soon the chick is fully awake. Celine places the penguin upright, with its feet firmly planted on the floor of the exam room. A bit groggy, the chick surveys the room and regains its balance. Celine continues to speak softly to the bird and massages its neck and cheeks, a little penguin TLC. Finally, the chick sticks its beak straight into the air and puffs up its chest, wings outstretched.

“There we go, that’s the penguin I know!” Celine laughs as Dr. Kelly takes a closer look at the bird’s defensive stance. “She’s one tough cookie.”

Celine guides the penguins back into the animal crate, and drapes a towel over the top to create a cozy, calming transport back to the penguin exhibit. The young chicks will spend the rest of the afternoon in a quiet area where they can rest, relax and later—when their appetites return—eat a whole lot of fish!

Back in the Animal Health building, Dr. Kelly, Kimberley and Barb clean up from the exam and prepare for their next patient. Dr. Kelly will send the penguins’ blood work to a lab where it will be tested for any abnormalities. The results, as well as the sex of the penguins, are returned in about one week.

Pictured above is a weigh in at just a few days old, they sure have grown! At the most recent exam, the penguins weighed 3.15 kg (6.9 lb.) and 3.39 kg  (7.5 lb.) Photo by John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

Weigh-ins will continue through adulthood for these penguins—keepers weigh each penguin once a month to track their health. We’re also able to keep a close eye on how the birds are doing by hand feeding them every day. This way we can make sure that each individual is getting their nutritional fill, about two pounds of fish each day. Any vitamins and medication they may require is administered orally via a whole fish.

For now, the two youngest penguins are building up to their debut by first meeting members of the colony in a behind-the-scenes area of the exhibit, introducing them slowly to their larger social world. Thoughtful introductions like this help young penguins acclimate better to the colony, adapt more quickly to their surroundings, and ease the transition of going onto exhibit for the first time. Airplanes, wild birds, public noise and activity, exhibit glass, rushing and deep water, and territorial adults are a lot for little penguins to take in. It’s not easy growing up penguin; there’s a lot to learn!

Thanks to our devoted penguin keepers and top-notch animal health staff, we know these two tuxedo-clad babes are in good hands.

Swim on, #49 and #50!


Unknown said…
So happy that the chicks got a clean bill of interesting article