Penguins get a helping home
A South African program provides fiberglass 'igloos' to protect the nests of endangered African penguins – and the birds love their new homes.
OFF DYER ISLAND, SOUTH AFRICA
Houses go fast on Dyer Island. Not 15 minutes after Wilfred Chivell finished the final touches on one recently installed structure – covering it with dirt, making sure the opening was clear – a couple had made themselves at home. Such is the demand on this flat, rocky island, once home to the largest colony of African penguins in the world.Skip to next paragraph
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"These penguins were just dying for shelter," says Mr. Chivell, a conservationist and tour-boat operator who helped launch this avian housing project – one of the more novel and promising attempts to help southern Africa's endangered penguins.
He and others are installing small, fiberglass igloos on Dyer Island, a jagged square mile that still is home to some 4,000 penguins. Their hope is to make up for the manmade habitat destruction that has forced the birds to nest in the open, a practice that makes their eggs and chicks vulnerable to predatory gulls. The conservationists have installed 200 artificial nests so far, and eventually want to put 2,000 in place, enough to protect every penguin pair. If the program is successful, they plan to expand it to other colonies in South Africa.
"The penguins occupy those burrows like greased lightning," says Les Underhill, a professor of avian demography at the University of Cape Town. "Anything that provides shelter is better than an open nest. You can feel quite moved for these poor birds who really are struggling."
Years ago, the African penguins (once known as "jackass penguins" for their vocalizations) burrowed their nests in guano, nutrient-rich bird droppings piled meters thick on the small seabird islands that speckle the water where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. The dried guano offered shade that kept them from overheating, and protected their eggs from predators.
But by the end of the last century, people had scraped away all the guano to sell as fertilizer, and the penguins had to nest directly on island rock. Without shade, the birds overheat, and must periodically leave their nests to cool off in the ocean. That made chicks and eggs vulnerable to kelp gulls, which also live on the islands.
To make matters worse for the penguins, the gull population has skyrocketed in recent years, largely because so much food is available from community rubbish dumps, Underhill says. Add to this oil spills, overfishing, and a shift in the swimming patterns of anchovies – one of the penguins' main food sources – and the penguins simply have been overmatched, he says.
Across the region, the number of African penguins has dropped from about 1.5 million adults in 1930 to 153,000 in the 1990s. On Dyer Island, the penguin population fell from a peak of 22,655 pairs in 1979 to about 2,000 pairs today.
Chivell says that he didn't realize how bad the problem had gotten until he visited the island in the late 1990s. The island is run by Cape Nature, the South African government's conservation body, and was designated by BirdLife International as a worldwide "Important Bird Area" for its large concentration of gulls, terns, and oystercatchers. From the water, the island looks pancake flat, with hundreds of birds perched along the rocky outcroppings.