At a time when uplifting news can seem like an all-too-precious commodity, the Tennessee Aquarium is doubly pleased to announce the recent hatching of a pair of Gentoo Penguin chicks in the Penguins’ Rock gallery.
The eggs were laid in late April, and the chicks began to pip on June 6, fully emerging from their shells on June 7 and June 8.
Since then, the babies have been growing like weeds, from about 150 grams each to about three kilograms (a 2,000 percent increase) in just a month.
Based on weekly weigh-ins and checkups by veterinary and animal care specialists, the chicks’ weight gain is well above average, even for a species that can reach full adult size in just a few months. That robust growth is a clear sign the chicks are being well cared for, says Aquarium Veterinarian Dr. Chris Keller.
“This year, in particular, the chicks have reflected excellent parenting from their moms and dads and have gained extremely well,” he says. “It’s pretty impressive. This particular crop has done as well as any we’ve had so far.”
Covered in a thick layer of soft, downy feathers and issuing a host of hisses, peeps, trumpets and other vocalizations, these baby birds represent a fascinating first for the Aquarium. One of the chicks is the offspring of parents — Roxie and Beaker — that hatched and were raised here themselves.
“This is the first time our chicks here have had chicks,” says Senior Aviculturist Loribeth Lee.
And to throw even more firsts into the mix, the second chick is the offspring of Pebbles and Nipper, who also happens to be the father of Beaker (the first chick’s dad).
“Nipper is just like Steve Martin’s character in Father of the Bride Part 2,” Lee adds. “He has a kid and a grandkid on the same day, and the grandkid comes first!”
With these most recent additions, the Aquarium has successfully hatched 24 chicks since 2009, an impressive number for a colony of 19 birds. Over the years, some of the birds hatched at the Tennessee Aquarium have been sent to other facilities to ensure the population of penguins in human care are healthy and genetically robust, Lee says.
For the Aquarium’s penguin team, the arrival of chicks is the culmination of months of increased workload and added responsibilities.
The buildup begins in March when husbandry staff meticulously clean hundreds of pounds of carefully chosen nesting rocks. After the birds begin constructing their nests, staff members must then build and place acrylic platforms and barriers to cordon off the nests from curious neighbors. Within a few weeks of “Rock Day,” the eggs are laid and chick watch begins in earnest.
“It is the best but simultaneously most stressful time for us,” Lee says. “But the parents are doing such a great job that we don’t have to worry about feeding, which helps out a lot.
“Seeing the chicks grow and the parents adjust to caring for them is a testament that we as keepers are doing something right.”
None of the Aquarium’s Macaroni Penguins laid eggs this year. However, this year is the first time since 2016 that a breeding season has produced two Gentoo Penguin chicks.
At about 30 days old, the chicks are about halfway to fledging, when they will leave the nest. Already more than half as tall as their parents, the chicks will begin to develop adult plumage in the coming weeks and could be ready for their first “swim test” in a backup area by mid-August. By that point, they will be as tall, if not as heavy, as their parents, Lee says.
For now, the chicks’ genders are still a mystery and won’t be revealed until the results of an annual blood test are returned as part of a yearly colony-wide checkup this fall.
Penguin fans can keep track of the rapidly growing chicks and digitally observe their interactions with their parents, other birds and animal care specialists by visiting tnaqua.org/animals-exhibits/penguins-rock-cam/