Macaroni Penguin Chick Hatches At The Tennessee Aquarium

  • Monday, July 1, 2024
  • Doug Strickland
photo by Doug Strickland / Tennessee Aquarium

There are few certainties in life, but alongside death, taxes, and the arrival of hot weather in July, at least one other thing is inarguable: baby penguins are almost impossibly cute.

Guests visiting the Tennessee Aquarium during the Fourth of July holiday can join aquarium staffers in excitedly welcoming the newest addition to the Penguins’ Rock gallery — a fluffy (and shockingly fast-growing) Macaroni Penguin chick.

The chick hatched on June 2 from an egg laid in late April by parents Bacon and Merlin. This baby bird is the first offspring ever produced by Bacon, who hatched in 2015 to two other aquarium penguins, Hercules and Little Debbie. Though Little Debbie now lives at another facility, the newest chick’s grandsire, Hercules, still calls Penguins’ Rock home. With this latest arrival, the aquarium is home for the first time ever to three generations of Macaroni Penguins.

The new chick is the aquarium’s first hatchling since the 2021 arrival of Carla, a Gentoo Penguin. This latest baby is the first Macaroni Penguin chick since Pedro hatched in 2019. The aquarium’s colony now has 23 birds: 9 Macaronis and 14 Gentoos.

The aquarium’s keen-eyed penguin care team first noticed the egg pipping — that’s the cracking that occurs when a baby bird begins to chip away at its shell from the inside — on a Friday afternoon when they spotted a dime-sized hole with a tiny beak moving around inside. The new chick seemed to get cold feet on Saturday with little progress. However, by Sunday morning, the chick had fully emerged with an unusual level of precision that surprised even its veteran caregivers.

“It seems like it has a little type A personality,” said Assistant Curator of Forests Loribeth Lee. “It cracked the egg perfectly, straight down the middle. We’ve never really seen that.”

When Ms. Lee discovered the emerged hatchling, it was sitting in the center of its stacked shell, which was broken neatly around the side in an almost perfect circle.

The chick’s precocious attitude didn’t end there. So far, it has displayed confidence and fearlessness both in its nest and around caregivers when briefly removed for tri-weekly weigh-ins to monitor its health and rate of growth.

“We’ve seen it pick up rocks multiple times in the nest, which is very impressive that it can do that at its size,” Ms. Lee said. “It’s been throwing them around, so it’s a strong, tough little bird.”

Speaking of size, the chick has been growing at an astronomical rate, thanks largely to its parents’ diligence. A day after hatching, it weighed just 145 grams (5.1 ounces, or a little less than an iPhone 15). Three weeks later, it had ballooned to a whopping 1,592 grams (3.5 pounds). To put that in perspective, that’s the same as a 7-pound human infant weighing 77 pounds before it was a month old.

Ms. Lee credits those gains to the skillful parentage of Bacon and Merlin, who has fathered several previous chicks and kept the chick well fed. A penguin growing quickly isn’t all that unusual, though. Macaroni Penguin chicks must mature quickly to be ready for the harsh winters in their native Antarctic climates, where they reach adult size in just two and a half months.

“When the chick leaves the nest, it will look like the other Macaroni adults minus the crest feathers, which take longer to grow in,” Ms. Lee sid.

By mid-August, the new chick will have doubled again in size to six or seven pounds. At that point, its poofy covering of gray down will be almost entirely replaced by waterproof adult feathers. With the passing of this milestone, the chick will be put through a swim test in a small off-exhibit pool, where its caregivers will ensure the newly minted swimmer can float, enter, and exit the water with ease. Once it successfully passes these tests, it will be allowed to take the plunge into Penguins’ Rock’s larger, deeper waters.

The new chick’s gender won’t be known until a blood test is conducted in November as part of an annual colony-wide checkup.

The aquarium has hatched 26 penguin chicks since 2009. Many of those birds have gone to live with other professional institutions, where they are producing their own offspring.

Though none of the aquarium’s Gentoo Penguins laid eggs this year, the arrival of a Macaroni Penguin chick is nonetheless exciting news.

Die-hard penguin fans will have an opportunity to choose the new chick’s name later this fall when the right to select a moniker will be offered as a biddable item in the aquarium’s annual fundraising auction. Proceeds from that auction help support the aquarium’s nonprofit mission to connect people with nature and empower them to make informed decisions about water and wildlife.

The arrival of a new penguin chick inevitably draws a crowd, and it’s not just humans who are interested.

“There’s a lot of interest from the other birds,” Ms. Lee said. “Some are just curious, and some are excited about the baby.”

Other penguins can frequently be seen gathered around staring in wonder at the latest arrival outside the protective acrylic walls surrounding the nesting couple and their new offspring near the center left of Penguins’ Rock’s rear wall.

If you would like to keep up with the new chick’s progress from afar, check out the aquarium’s live Penguins’ Rock webcam at tnaqua.org/live/penguins-rock/.

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