A hundred years ago there were four million, today there are a mere 55,000. Such is the perilous predicament of African Penguins. The experts are saying that within 15 years the species could become extinct if the decline in their population is not halted….sad facts of life for a truly wonderful little guy!
Commonly known as Jackass Penguins for their donkey-like braying these birds are only found in a few small colonies along the south western coastline of South Africa and Namibia. One of the best known colonies is at Boulders Beach, near the port of Simonstown where it is possible to access to the beach via a series of wooden walkways that are raised above the ground so the Penguins can pass underneath and access nesting sites in the thick vegetation above the beach. The walkways are great as they allow close up observation and photography of the Penguins going about their daily routine of lolling around, preening or waddling down to the water for a swim.
African Penguins are the only Penguin species that breeds on the African Coast and are identified by black stripe and spots on the chest. Like human fingerprints each pattern of spots is an identifying feature unique to each bird.
Their distinctive black and white coloring is a vital form of camouflage while swimming. The white on their underside is designed to confuse predators looking upwards and their black backs for predators looking down onto the dark water. The pink glands above their eyes, are used for thermoregulation. The hotter the penguin gets, the more blood is sent to these glands where it is cooled by the surrounding air. So in hot sun , the glands become more pink than say, would be the case on a cool day.
The plight of the African Penguin has become direr over the past two decades as commercial overfishing of the seas off their colonies has forced the Penguins to forage further for the pilchards that make up their diet. On top of this the loss of habitat on land for breeding due to housing and other development has progressively forced the birds into ever smaller groups. Add the ever present threat from sharks in the sea and savaging Gulls and Jackals preying on defenseless young means survival rates for young penguins is becoming dangerously low.All the while we were watching the Penguins, Gulls were constantly circling overhead looking for a chance to snatch any unwary youngster straying out from under the parents protection; a vivid reminder of how real the threat to these birds really is.
African Penguins are monogamous, returning each year to the same spot to breed. Their nests are either dug out in the sand or under dense shoreline bushes and vegetation. Incubation is undertaken equally by both parents for about 40 days. At least one parent guards the chicks until about 30 days when the chicks join a crèche with other chicks allowing the parents head out to sea to forage each day.
Once a year the birds molt, a miserable time for them as they cannot swim or feed. They are forced to hang around preening the old feathers loose while waiting for their new waterproof outer layer to re-grow. During this time they really look sad and dejected and it’s hard not to pity them.
It’s sad that wonderful creatures like this are under pressure. They are fantastic birds to watch and it will be a sad day for the world if they are to become extinct. So, next time you visit Cape Town, take the opportunity to drive out to Boulders and spend some time with these guys. You will not regret it.