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November 2018

Galapagos Penguins One of The Rarest Penguins in the World

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos Penguin
Photo credit: Charles J. Sharp, Sharp Photography

Galapagos Penguins, One of the Rarest Penguins in the World

by Mike King

Far from the frigid weather of Antarctica, the Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is the only penguin species to venture into the Northern Hemisphere. As the name implies, they are native to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador off the coast of South America. This bird is mostly black and white, with a pink tint under the bill. The white front is broken by a black bar just beneath the neck, and a white stripe curls to the eye through the otherwise all-black face. Like all penguins, Galapagos Penguins are flightless, and their wings have adapted into flippers that they use while swimming in the Pacific. 

What do Galapagos Penguins eat?

Galapagos Penguins feed on sardines, mullets, anchovies, and other small fish. They hunt by diving down under the fish, and catching their prey while swimming up through the fleeing schools. They can often be seen in day-long feeding flocks (multi-species gatherings of birds foraging together) with Brown Noddies, Brown Pelicans, and Flightless Cormorants. As the penguins drive schools of fish toward the surface, the other birds that cannot dive as well are able to feed. 

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos penguin swimming.
Photo credit: Andrew Skujins

Galapagos Penguins have a different breeding strategy than most other penguins

Unlike most birds, Galapagos Penguins breed opportunistically year-round. This is a great adaptation for a very unpredictable environment. Wherever food is plentiful, they can mate. For the most part, Galapagos Penguins mate for life and take turns tending to eggs and young chicks. Once the chicks are three weeks old, the parents can begin to leave them on their own for short periods of time. 

Threats to Galapagos Penguins

Galapagos Penguins have faced severe population fluctuations since the 1970’s. Rising ocean temperatures have hindered the cold currents that bring fish towards their feeding grounds, leaving penguins to starve. High ocean surface temperatures have also led to a halt in breeding. There are only 1,200 Galapagos Penguins in the wild today. With numbers that small, population fluctuations can be catastrophic. Researchers suggest there is a 30% chance that Galapagos Penguins will go completely extinct within the next hundred years. Conservation of these penguins can be a major challenge. The entirety of the Galapagos Islands is a protected nature preserve, so what more can be done? 

As nutrient-rich cold currents become increasingly rare, less fish are available to the penguins. Many of the fish that do end up in the waters of the Galapagos are fished out by humans. This results in a large-scale absence of food for Galapagos Penguins. Oil spills can also kill penguins and their prey. The biggest issue, however, is human-induced climate change. The massive amount of carbon emissions produced within the last hundred years by human industries has contributed to the warming of our oceans, and increased the severity of El Niño. El Niño is a drastic change in climate that occurs irregularly around the equator in the Pacific Ocean. When El Niño is active, unusually warm currents arise around the Galapagos Islands. These currents are far too warm for the fish Galapagos Penguins feed on, and the result is catastrophic to their well-being. According to penguin researcher F. Hernan Vargas, two of the strongest El Niño events in recent history were in the years 1982-1983 and 1997-1998, which resulted in a 77% and 65% drop in Galapagos Penguin population respectively. As the climate continues to warm, these events will only happen more and more often, and the penguins may not be able to recuperate. 

Galapagos Penguin
Photo credit: Mike Weston

Many of us are growing accustomed to the constant warnings of researchers in regards to climate change. Galapagos Penguins are not the first animal to be negatively affected, and they certainly will not be the last. Although the biggest contributors to human-induced climate change are large corporations, there are still many ways that all of us can make a difference. Besides choosing political candidates that support the environment, many of us can make simple changes in our daily lives that will reduce the amount of carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere.

These changes include:

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos Penguin
Photo credit: Richard Jenkinson
  • Taking public transportation or carpooling to work
  • Using high-efficiency appliances–or solar panels
  • Eating locally-produced foods
  • Eating less beef and dairy
  • Planting native trees and flowers in your yard
  • Reducing water usage
  • Reusing and recycling products and packaging. Check out the useful suggestions in this blog: Go Green: Eco-Friendly Products We Should All Be Using

Making even a few of these changes in your life can be the first step toward a healthier atmosphere. Many of these changes actually save the individual money in the long run as well! Much damage has already been dealt by human activity to the Earth and the organisms that call it home; but if people prioritize environmental sustainability in their own lives, we can start to move toward a world where animals like Galapagos penguins can thrive for generations to come.

The Little Penguins of Middle Island

little penguin
Photo credit: Francesco Veronesi from Italy

The Little Penguins of Middle Island

by Mike King

Many of us think of penguins as adorable birds that live in the frigid temperatures of Antarctica. In the case of the Little Penguin, that is only half true. These birds live along the southern edge of Australia, along with its surrounding islands and New Zealand. As the name implies, the Little Penguin is the smallest of the penguin species. Another interesting characteristic of these birds is that their feathers appear blue when seen under the sun; but this is simply a mechanism of light used to trick your brain. All birds that appear blue actually have black feathers, but they layer the tiny hair-like structures in their feathers to capture the light in such a way that it appears blue! If you were to find a Little Penguin feather on the ground and smash it with a hammer, it would turn black in front of your eyes!

Little Penguins feed mainly on schooling fish. They hunt individually or in small groups of six or less birds. When fish are not available, they are also known to feed on squid and even jellyfish. Females can lay 1-2 eggs per year, usually in July. Parental care is shared by both the mother and father of the chicks, until they reach eight-weeks-old and fledge. Young fledglings are much smaller than adults, and have a bright blue color on their back that darkens with age. These birds have very few natural predators, unfortunately human activity has led to a decline in Little Penguin populations across Australia and New Zealand.

In the mid-1800’s, European red foxes were introduced into Australia for recreational hunting. Today, they are still prevalent as an invasive species and contribute to the decline of many Australian species, including Little Penguins. The threat posed by these foxes, as well as cats and dogs, has been a primary issue for ecologists. Numerous techniques have been implemented by researchers to try to save Little Penguins. One program in particular has gained global attention with a little help from Hollywood. 

Hundreds of Little Penguins live on Middle Island

Middle Island is a tiny island just off the coast of southern Australia and was home to a population of hundreds of Little Penguins; but when invasive red foxes crossed over from the mainland, they killed all but four. As the penguin population slowly recuperated, community members brainstormed ways that they could protect their beloved penguins from any future attacks. One man, a chicken farmer, came up with the idea to send one of his dogs to help protect the penguins from future fox invasions. The dog’s name was Oddball. He was a Maremma dog—a fluffy, lovable breed used by Australians to protect livestock from predators. For over 10 years, Oddball and other Maremma dogs donated by community members successfully protected the Little penguins from foxes. The penguin population increased tremendously. This incredible conservation success was adapted to a movie in 2015, appropriately named “Oddball.” 

Tourists boost conservation of Little Penguins

“Oddball” was well-received around the world, and has brought a large amount of tourism to the Middle Island area. This has helped to boost the economy of the area, which increases community support for the conservation of their Little Penguins. This is an incredible example of the impact conservation can have on the attitudes of people. There are now several community volunteer programs across the range of the penguins. Hopefully, with continued economic support from tourism, local legislatures will be prompted to pass laws that protect Little Penguins from other threats, such as entanglement in fishing nets. 

Photo of a family of Little penguins exiting their burrow on Middle Island.
Photo credit: JJ Harrison ([email protected])
Tula and Eudy, two of the Maremma sheepdogs that protect Little penguins on Middle Island.
Photo credit: Warrnambool City Council

Little Penguins on Middle Island are a conservation success

The story of the Little Penguins is a model for conservation successes around the world. When ecologists are able to get community members interested and involved in the process of saving a species, everybody benefits. The increased publicity of programs like the Maremma dogs of Middle Island will lead to the improvement of local economies, which in turn promotes community engagement with the protection of a species. Human activity often puts animals at risk of extinction, and human activity is often the only thing that can save them. 

Visit our other recent blogs to read about more penguin species:

Little penguin, also called a Fairy penguin or Blue penguin.
Photo credit: JJ Harrison ([email protected])

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Penguin Quiz Answer – Penguin Counting

magellanic penguins and gentoo penguins

And the correct answer to the number of Magellanic Penguins in the photo above: 16

Okay, yes, this was a challenging question. In fact, of all the people who answered, only 2 got it right!

Which ones are which? For reference, take a look at the circled penguins in the photo above. Those are all of the Magellanic Penguins. Some of them are juveniles, which might have thrown a few guesses off since their plumage is not as distinct. There is one penguin that is well hidden and took a lot analyzing to be sure, and it was the one with the two arrows. More on that below.

How to identify: Magellanic Penguins have two black stripes (and two white stripes) under their chin, with black bills, and black legs and feet. The rest of the penguins in the photo are all Gentoo Penguins. The distinguishing mark of the Gentoo is the white patch on top of its head, and they have orange bills with orange legs and feet. That’s your penguin identification lesson for the day.

Alright, now to discuss the penguin with the two arrows. This one is a challenge because it’s mostly hidden. Take a look at the arrow on the right. That arrow is pointing at the penguin’s head. If you look very closely, you can barely see the arc of the white crescent stripe that curves along the side of a Magellanic Penguin’s head. The arrow on the left is pointing toward the tail. If this was a Gentoo, there would be white showing here along the grass due to the Gentoo’s rounder, plumper body shape which pushes the white feathers on their upper legs out to the side enough to be seen. Instead, only black feathers are showing near the tail. So, based on these markings, that penguin is identified as a Magellanic.

Congratulations to the two winners:

  • Mackenzie S.
  • Jeff W.

Thanks to all for participating! We’ll have a new quiz in two weeks with more prizes.

The winners from today’s quiz will have a message sent to the email address they provided with instructions for receiving their 2019 Penguins International photo calendar. Great job, you are true masters of penguin identification!

Questions about this? Leave a comment below.

Penguin Quiz – Penguin Counting

Magellanic penguins and gentoo penguins

Here’s your chance to show off your knowledge of penguins. And your penguin-counting ability.

The challenge: Count only the Magellanic Penguins in the above photo.

The winner will be rewarded with a free 2019 Penguins International photo calendar. Wait — special for this quiz — the first two winners will receive a calendar. The calendar is posted here in our gift shop.

How to enter? Post your answer in the comments section at the bottom of this page. The first two people with the correct answer will receive a free calendar in the mail.

Remember, count and post only the number of Magellanic Penguins shown in the photo above.

Note: To keep it fair, the answers will be hidden until the afternoon. There will also be a delay in your comment appearing below. Don’t worry, your answer is recorded and time stamped. Check back in the morning for the correct answer and the names of the winners. Good luck!

SANCCOB Seabird Hospital Has Grand Opening For Its New Facility

Photo: Jenny Goldhawk-Smith

SANCCOB introduces their brand new state-of-the-art seabird hospital

SANCCOB has worked for many years to help South Africa’s seabirds, with particular attention focused on helping to save the endangered African Penguins. Just this past week, they have opened a brand new, high tech facility to not only make a big difference in the help and support they can offer sick and injured seabirds, but also to allow visitors to see their operations, learn more about seabirds, and get close to the birds they save.

Take a look at the video to see inside this new seabird hospital and the grand opening celebration:

Video courtesy of Jenny Goldhawk-Smith, JEN-NEWS

SANCCOB’s new facility is the “largest facility of its kind in southern Africa.”

SANCCOB is a 50 year old organisation that has been operating from prefabricated facilities in Table View, Cape Town, for the past 35 years. After receiving seed funding from the National Lotteries Commission, we embarked on a major fundraising drive to cover the shortfall and commenced construction in February 2017.

Our building work is complete and we now have a brand new state-of-the-art seabird hospital, the largest facility of its kind in southern Africa. Specialised areas include two new ICUs, a three-part wash bay area for oiled birds, two surgery rooms, X-ray room, an aviary, and pens and pools. The new centre will allow SANCCOB to increase its capacity to admit and rehabilitate more seabirds, improve our standard of care and educate more people about the plight of the endangered African Penguin species and other seabirds. We will also reopen to the public for educational tours and have a new shop facility at the centre.

~ Ronnis Daniel, SANCCOB Public Relations

Be sure to check out these videos to see their grand opening celebration and their recent release of rehabilitated African Penguins.

These penguins are found covered in oil from the nearby shipping vessels and the birds must be thoroughly washed and nursed back to health before they can be released. This video shows the amazing work SANCCOB does to save these penguins that would otherwise die if they weren’t helped by the dedicated staff at this seabird hospital.

Thanks SANCCOB for all you do!

Video courtesy of Jenny Goldhawk-Smith, JEN-NEWS

Visit their site to learn more: SANCCOB

And be sure to post comments below if you’ve visited SANCCOB or have stories to tell about African penguins.

African penguins don’t like the cold — read more about other penguins that love the heat!

Do all penguins love the cold?

Galapagos penguin
by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

All species of penguins are restricted to southern latitudes and most of us think of them in cold climates and Antarctic snow. But there are two species that venture farther north, reaching the equator. They are sun-loving penguins: The Humboldt and Galapagos Penguins.

Some penguins love cold, some penguins love the heat

Penguins split their lives between two landscapes: in ocean waters when searching for their favorite fishes and squid, and on land when it’s time to breed or to change new feathers. The Galapagos and the Humboldt Penguins, like other penguin species, are top predators of marine food webs and key elements for the balance of southern marine food chains. Both species live in habitats that look quite harshly similar. The Humboldt Penguin likes to nest in guano mounds on rocky shores and cliffs, and similarly the Galapagos penguin likes rocky crevices and protected shelters. 

Although these penguins are sun-loving birds, they are still associated to relatively cold temperatures, as their distribution is mainly determined by the presence of the Humboldt Current, a current with cold waters that flow north from Antarctica all the way to the Galapagos. The Humboldt Current is one of the world’s most productive, filled with nutrients which are ideal for plankton and wildlife to thrive. 

Many threats to Humboldt and Galapagos Penguins

Both species of penguins have gone through dramatic population fluctuations. In the 18th century, Humboldt Penguins occurred by the “hundreds of thousands” before the guano exploitation started. Together with human exploitation and decrease of available habitat, these species have also been negatively impacted by water temperature fluctuations provoked by El Niño, an increase of invasive species, and new wildlife diseases to name a few threats. Here’s a summary of the most relevant facts for each species:

Facts about Humboldt Penguins

Humboldt Penguin

Humboldt penguin
Photo: Adam Kumiszcza

Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) used to be abundant in the 18th century. Historical records mention “millions of birds” along rocky beaches in the coasts of Peru and Chile. When the exploitation of guano began, penguins saw their nesting grounds being constantly disturbed and they quickly abandoned those areas. Moreover, their numbers decreased as a result of direct hunting of adults and egg harvesting. 

Their current numbers are calculated at around 30,000 individuals (accurate estimates unknown due to deficiencies in survey methodologies). Although population numbers seem stable and/or growing in some years, Humboldt Penguins are classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Sometimes when strong El Niño events hit, they can face years with up to ~60% mortality of individuals. The main reason for such dramatic declines is linked with their favorite prey: Anchovies and other small fishes swim deeper in cold waters or farther away from penguin’s foraging areas when El Niño’s warm waters invade the Humboldt Current. Unfortunately, it is very likely that El Niño events will become more frequent and less predictable in a warming world, endangering the probabilities of immediate recovery for Humboldt Penguins.

Industrial fisheries and the risk of entanglement on gill nets pose another threat for this species. Although Humboldt Penguins prefer to stay close to their nesting colonies during breeding, non-breeding individuals venture farther away during winter, as has been shown by recent tracking of individuals, increasing the likelihood of encounters with fisheries.  

Penguins and their eggs are also easy prey for invasive species. Rats, feral cats and dogs and even human activity have had an effect on nesting populations. Current management programs in the largest colonies of Humboldt penguins include the eradication of such species with preliminary positive results. However, this implies a gigantic amount of work and management programs now run mostly in protected areas and with limited budgets. 

Facts about Galapagos Penguins

Galapagos penguins

Galapagos penguins
Photo: Hjalmar Gislason

The Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) can be found only around two islands in the Galapagos archipelago: Isabela and Fernandina islands. Like its closest neighbor the Humboldt Penguin, the populations of Galapagos Penguins have experienced dramatic numeric fluctuations (up to 80%) provoked by El Niño events, introduced species, and new diseases. 

The threat for this species, however, is potentially more dramatic than the one for the Humboldt Penguin, since their numbers do not exceed 5,000 individuals. Due to their restricted geographical location and limited numbers, the Galapagos Penguin’s current status by the IUCN is Endangered. 

Galapagos Penguins are also threatened by local fishing operations and the possible arrival of diseases such as bird malaria. Moreover, climate change may likely decrease the availability of its various fish prey which could possibly limit the chances of successful nests for this bird. 

How do we protect Humboldt Penguins and Galapagos Penguins for the future?

Species can persist if coordinated efforts by scientists, authorities, local fisherman and the general public start alleviating pressures coming from human sources. For example, the installation of artificial nests can potentially increase available habitat for both species and increase their chances of yearly nest success. 

Similarly, restricting access to breeding grounds for tourists, local fishermen and public in general has been a strategy that has proved successful for many other marine birds for which their nesting colonies have been re-populated. This strategy could also potentially work for these penguins.  

An urgent and forceful control of invasive species might have the strongest immediate impact on nesting birds and could boost population numbers and recruitment. 

Most importantly, public awareness constitutes a powerful tool for the preservation of any species. It’s crucial to understand the impact of our activities on the world (e.g. fishing, climate change) and the ways to mitigate our negative individual impacts. Hopefully, all these measures implemented could offer a more positive prospect for these sun-loving penguins and one day we might even see thousands of them again enjoying the sun on their rocky beaches. 

Have you ever seen Galapagos or Humboldt penguins in the wild? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Read more about Adelie Penguins and Northern Rockhopper Penguins!


Adelie Penguins – Nature’s Cutest Thieves May Play a Role as an Indicator Species

Adelie Penguin
by Mike King

Of the 18 penguin species currently recognized by science, none are quite as mischievous as the Adelie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae). These birds live in large colonies along the rocky banks of Antarctica. Adelies, like most penguins, are very dedicated parents. They build small nests out of stones to protect their chicks. Many of these parents even steal stones from other nests in order to protect their own! 

Adelie Penguins walk a lot!

Although Adelie Penguins fit the typical morphological description of most penguins (awkward, round, andAdelie Penguins stubby-legged), they are capable of accomplishing incredible physical feats. They migrate up to 31 miles every spring on foot! Like all penguins, they are also capable swimmers. Adelie penguin chicks are able to swim on their own at the young age of 9 weeks. 

The diet of the Adelie is quite unusual for that of a penguin. Most penguins feed almost exclusively on fish, but the vast majority of the Adelie’s diet is made up of tiny marine organisms called krill. Krill are small, shrimp-like crustaceans that provide a basic food source for countless marine creatures. Because of the constant threat of predation, krill are highly adapted swimmers. Adelie Penguins must swim with incredible athleticism and stealth in order to catch their food and survive. In a video released by penguin researcher Yuuki Watanabe in 2013, viewers are able to see from a penguin’s point-of-view just how chaotic these underwater chases can be. It is not difficult to appreciate the amazing balance of nature put on display by the competing survival abilities of both species. This ecological balance, however, can only withstand a certain amount of strain before it tips over. 

Adelie PenguinOften times, animal populations are threatened by humans due to overharvesting of their prey. In the case of Adelie penguins, however, an overabundance of their prey may be indicative of a greater ecological issue. According to the IUCN Redlist, Adelie Penguin populations have increased at a rate of about 2% per year since the mid 1990’s. This may sound like great news, but some researchers disagree. According to papers released by Fraser et. al. and Taylor et. al., the increase in Adelie Penguin populations may actually be linked to climate change. Fraser et. al. found that the loss of sea ice on the Antarctic continent has led to greater numbers of krill, thus increasing the survivability of Adelie penguins. Therefore, this massive increase in penguin population indicates just how much climate change can affect an ecosystem. More penguins may sound like a good thing, but in this case they may begin to outcompete other species and begin slowly hunting the krill to drastically low levels. Of course, this is only one issue melting sea ice can cause.

Adelie Penguins are indicator species of climate change

There has been growing concerns in the scientific community about climate change since the 1960s. Governments around the globe started to take action in the 1980s through legislative procedures. Many scientific studies have predicted massive extinction rates, flooding cities, the loss of pollinators (and also therefore fruit) will all be likely events if climate change is to continue on its current course. With the knowledge of how the Adelie Penguin population corresponds to climate change, scientists can begin to monitor the progress being made by rising ocean temperatures in a much simpler way than in the past. Adelie Penguins may now be used as an “indicator species”—a living organism whose presence and abundance can be used to tell us things about an ecosystem. The concept is not a new one; scientists have used indicator species such as marine invertebrates in order to determine the overall health of an ecosystem. Basically, we can monitor the population of Adelie Penguins in Antarctica, and use that information to determine how much sea ice was lost since the last population assessment. 

Listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN Redlist, Adelie Penguins have not taken center stage in any major conservation movements. However, with the information we now possess, we will be able to conduct more studies on Adelie penguin populations and their effects on krill populations to gain a better understanding of how rapidly climate change is melting sea ice in Antarctica. This small, stone-stealing bird is much more than a cute video to be laughed at. It is a looking glass into the health of our Southern Ocean, and may shed light on how quickly we must act to protect it. 

Next stop — Northern Rockhoppers Penguins!


Meet the Northern Rockhopper Penguin

Northern Rockhopper Penguin

Northern Rockhopper Penguins

by Mike King

Off the coast of South Africa lives one of the world’s most iconic and charismatic birds – the Northern Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi). These birds, native to the southern islands Gough, Amsterdam, and the Tristan archipelago, are one of 18 different penguin species alive today. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most endangered.

Northern Rockhopper Penguins have the longest crest feathers of any penguin species

Northern Rockhoppers are striking in physical appearance. These penguins have a slate-colored back and head, and a white front and underside. The most unique morphological feature on these birds is certainly the long, frayed yellow feathers extending like long eyebrows across their forehead. The most noticable difference between Northern Rockhoppers and Southern Rockhoppers (Eudyptes chrysocome) is that the “eyebrow” of the Northern variety is significantly longer than that of their Southern relatives.

Northern Rockhoppers are stout, athletic birds. Like all penguins, they have modified wings that act as flippers to help them glide gracefully through the water. Aptly named, these birds often hop around awkwardly on land; but they occasionally slide on their bellies on smooth downhill landscapes. Their diet consists mostly of krill, but as opportunistic foragers they will also readily eat fish and squid when they are available. 

Once a common sight on islands in the Southern Ocean, the Northern Rockhopper Penguin population has declined at a rate of 3-4% per year since the early 1970s, totaling at a 57% decline. So what has contributed to this drastic population decrease, and what can be done to reverse the current trend? 

Northern Rockhopper Penguin
Photo: Lorna Moffat, Edinburgh Zoo

Threats to Northern Rockhopper Penguins


Several introduced species pose threats to Northern Rockhopper Penguins. Chief among these species were feral pigs, until their eventual eradication in the 20th century. Dogs and introduced mice also pose certain threats, though there is a lack of data quantifying the magnitude of their impact on the birds.

Climate change-

Although scientific data quantifying the effect of climate change on penguins is still in the process of being conducted, researchers have reason to believe that abnormalities in the Earth’s natural climate can negatively affect birds like penguins. The main reason being studied is that rising ocean temperatures in the areas in which Northern Rockhoppers live are leading to the decline of fish for the penguins to eat.

Human activity-

Human activity is by far the harshest threat to the Northern Rockhopper Penguin. For years, the birds were killed for feathers, hunting bait, and bushmeat. Their eggs were also harvested to feed the people of the island until as recently as 2011. The rapidly increasing development of human housing, roads and cities have led to a severe decrease in habitat availability for the penguins as well.

Conservation of Northern Rockhopper Penguins

A series of laws recently passed in the Tristan island community has sectioned off an entire island to the penguins for habitat without the threat of human intervention. This provides a large area for the penguins to hunt, breed and raise their young. Citizens have also taken action by putting up a fence to keep penguin predators away from the island. Ultimately, the future of the Northern Rockhopper Penguin relies on the continued research, outreach and community education for the benefit of this species.

Northern Rockhopper chick
Photo: Lorna Moffat, Edinburgh Zoo
Northern Rockhopper adult and chicks
Photo: Lorna Moffat, Edinburgh Zoo

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