Environment

At five weeks old, Louisville Zoo’s oldest little penguin chick already weighs more than its parents. That’s still not very much when you’re a member of the world’s smallest species of penguin. 

The Louisville Zoo is welcoming three more so-called little penguins to its colony following this year’s breeding season. Adult little Penguins, also known as fairy blue penguins, stand a little over a foot tall and weigh-in at just under three pounds. 

Louisville Zoo Bird Curator James McKinney says the oldest of three chicks already weighs more than two and a half pounds.

“They’re pretty interesting to hold when they are that size because their bottoms feel like a fluffy, feathery water balloon because they are just so fat on the bottom,” McKinney said. 

Little penguins are native to the southern coast of Australia and the coast of New Zealand. There are an estimated 500,000 left in the wild and they aren’t as endangered as other penguins, though their numbers are on a slow decline due to habitat loss and predation from cats and dogs, according to a zoo press release. 

Breeding season for little penguins begins in late fall. At the Louisville Zoo, McKinney and officials play a kind of matchmaker. As fall wanes, the penguins start pairing off, spending more time away from the flock and gathering nesting materials. 

Louisville Zoo

Little penguin chicks at the Louisville zoo.

At that point, zoo officials check to make sure each set of parents are a good pair, genetically speaking. 

Little penguins are included in a species survival plan maintained by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Biologists monitor the frisky penguins and track mates using a genetic database to avoid closely related genetics. 

At the Louisville Zoo, little penguin couples get their own holding areas replete with a nesting burrow. The penguins decorate with their own nesting materials, usually gathered from plants.  When the time is right, they lay one or two eggs. 

The three chicks at the Louisville Zoo were born over three weeks from late October to early November and join 21 other Little Penguins in the colony.

“Hatchings and births are always a great time for celebration, and we are excited to welcome these new ‘little’ ambassadors this holiday season,” said Louisville Zoo Executive Director Dan Maloney.

The oldest of the chicks has already started to lose some of its fluffy downy plumage, replaced by waterproof juvenile feathers. Over the next few months, the chicks will learn to swim.

McKinney expects they’ll join the rest of the colony in spring, when they’ll be available for public viewing.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.