Chicago penguin pair tours local attractions

Magellanic Penguins
Magellanic penguins consider going for a swim while a waddle of rockhoppers penguins climb to a nesting area (Thomas Smith/MEDILL)

By Thomas Smith
Medill Reports

Most couples were hunkering down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but Izzy and Darwin spent the lockdown visiting some of Chicago’s best museums.

The pair of magellanic penguins toured the Field Museum of Natural History in July and got to preview the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new Just Connect exhibit before the public in September. And despite their shared love of exploring new places, the couple is about as different as they come.

Magellanics can be found in the wild on the coast of South America, which means the black-and-white banded birds prefer a milder temperature around 65 degrees at their home in the Shedd Aquarium. Izzy and Darwin hatched in captivity in 2010, and are expected to live to be around 25, although magellanic penguins scarcely survive to be 20 in the wild. The breed is around 2 feet tall, weighs about 10 pounds, and thrives on a diet of fish.

Izzy and Darwin
Izzy and Darwin are among the first to experience the Just Connect exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. (Shedd Aquarium)

The birds are also very curious, and Shedd penguin caretaker Katy Roxbury said Izzy and Darwin’s recent field trips spread joy to many who saw them.

“Field trips are something that we typically do with these guys,” Roxbury said. “But given the current climate and the pandemic, we went on a field trip and it was posted on social media and went viral. It was what people wanted to see and needed to see.”

Magellanic penguins are monogamous by nature, a trait not common to all penguin breeds. Izzy and Darwin are a bonded pair, which means the two will be devoted to each other for life. Roxbury said each penguin has distinct characteristics, and Izzy and Darwin have many opposite characteristics. Izzy is quick to warm up to new people and quick to learn new behaviors, which makes her a great penguin for shows and audience interactions. On the other hand, Darwin tends to be shy, slower to warm up to new people, and will sometimes freeze up and stare at the audience when performing a penguin parade.

“They are all so different,” Roxbury said. “They have their different characteristics and their different traits. They all have things that they like or dislike, or seem to like or dislike. Izzy or Darwin, their behavior and how we interact with them — we can’t do that with all of our penguins.”

A total of 30 magellanic and rockhopper penguins live together, according to the aquarium website. Rockhopper penguins are native to some of the same parts of South America and are slightly smaller than magellanics. Their black and white coloration has no bands, and they can be recognized by their distinctive red eyes, orange beaks, and yellow crest feathers that look like eyebrows. While the breed does form bonded pairs for extended periods of time, Roxbury said a rockhopper couple is not necessarily in it for life. Rockhoppers also hop around when on land, while magellanics waddle.

Magellanics and rockhoppers
While magellanic penguins and rockhoppers coexist without issue, the respective breeds often keep their distance as rockhoppers tend to prefer higher ground (Thomas Smith/MEDILL)

Magellanic penguins go through migration season, nesting season and molting season over the course of a year, with the birds spending more time in the water during migration season and more time on land during molting season. During nesting season, penguin couples build nests out of rocks and cut-up garden hose and may hatch fluffy gray chicks which they raise for several months. Izzy and Darwin have no hatchlings of their own, but Roxbury said the aquarium staff anxiously awaits what each nesting season will bring. Although Izzy has a brother who lives at Shedd, magellanic penguins do not recognize family members.

Magellanics are great swimmers, reaching speeds up to 15 mph in the water. The breed has small, densely packed feathers that they maintain by preening with oil from a gland under their tail according to the aquarium website. Each year the penguins will molt all their feathers then take several weeks to replume on land. Izzy and Darwin also sneeze to excrete the salt in their diet, use the bathroom roughly every 10 minutes, self-regulate their food intake, and express themselves to each other.

“You might see them duck their head and shake a little bit,” Roxbury said. “That is the behavior that we see penguins do with a mate or with a bird that they may be courting as a mate, and they will call back and forth with each other.”

Magellanic waddle
Penguins are social animals, and a waddle of magellanics coexists without a social hierarchy (Thomas Smith/MEDILL)

In a typical day, Izzy and Darwin will swim, eat fish, and socialize as much as possible. Outside of pandemic times, caretakers take penguins on walks around the aquarium where the curious birds like to observe other the other animals who live at Shedd. Roxbury said Shedd penguins are friendly to humans, and some even like to be pet on their chest and head.

“If we’re giving them a little scratch over the back of their head they might melt a little bit, like lay down in our lap,” she said. “That’s an indication that they seem to enjoy that, but it is dependent on the penguin.”

Tactile Interaction
Some penguins enjoy tactile interactions while being fed, and the rockhopper pictured here certainly do (Thomas Smith/MEDILL)

The Shedd Aquarium is currently closed to visitors in accordance with state and citywide COVID-19 mitigation efforts. A spokesperson said the aquarium continues to follow all coronavirus health and safety guidelines. However, patrons can still visit Shedd animals virtually and that includes virtual visits with Izzy and Darwin.

Thomas Smith is a science reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @TomGoodwinSmith.