Penguin chicks enrol into penguin nursery

The class of 2015: 'Penguin school' about to start for the Folly Farm five - Cogsworth, Bagheera, Abu, Scuttle and Thumper.

The first two penguin chicks at Folly Farm have fledged from the nest by their parents - and have been taken into a special penguin nursery enclosure where they will learn key penguin survival skills.

Eventually all five chicks at the Pembrokeshire zoo will spend a few weeks in 'Penguin nursery' and then be reintroduced into the penguin community when they around four or five months old.

The penguin chicks range in age from seven to eight weeks old. When they get to between eight and 12 weeks of age, their parents will not allow them back into the nest and leave them to fend for themselves.

In the wild, half of all penguin chicks won't survive by themselves. As they are an endangered species, Folly Farm is one of many zoos that takes the young penguins into a nursery enclosure until their waterproof feathers are fully grown, and they have learned to eat independently.

Catrin Thomas, along with her colleague Caroline Davies, has been a penguin keeper here at Folly Farm since the penguins arrived in May 2013.

"Watching the penguins develop in the nursery is an amazing experience. We have five penguin chicks this year and they are all named after Disney characters - Cogsworth, Bagheera, Abu, Scuttle and Thumper, on account of his feet sticking out of the egg when he was hatching. It is common for zoos to follow different naming themes each year so it is easy to determine which chicks are from which breeding year. The first two chicks in the nursery are Cogsworth and Thumper; all their names are unisex, until their gender can be determined at around four months of age. When they start heading towards the water by themselves, we know it is time to take them into the nursery."

She added: "Last year, we had one penguin chick who fledged at eight weeks of age. She was tiny and had not yet grown her waterproof feathers, so she would not have survived on her own. As penguins are an endangered species, we want to make sure they have the best start in life, so we take them into the nursery."

In the nursery, they will follow a weaning process that will enable them to eat independently. They will be fed three times a day initially, with this slowly being cut down to two feeds as their skills develop.

Thomas said: "Currently, the penguins are being fed regurgitated food from the mouths of their parents. The first step will be to force-feed them whole fish as this is the easiest way for them to learn. Then, we will hold the fish in the water for them to take off us, and next they will catch the fish by themselves when they are dropped into the water."

The penguin chicks will also become accustomed to the water in a custom-built splash pool, as their waterproof feathers grow and they gain confidence in swimming.

The penguins even have their own version of a graduation ceremony from penguin school, where they all slowly walk together from the edge of the enclosure into the pool, to be met by the other 30 penguins in the community.

Thomas said: "Last year, Caroline and I were calling them, and they walked down slowly huddled together. Some were more nervous than others and went back to their old nest, but then they saw the older penguins and you could see the excitement. The other penguins are very welcoming and it is so much nicer for them to be part of a colony."

We currently has 35 penguins, including the five new chicks. The eldest penguin, at 22 years of age, is Holly, closely followed by her partner of some 20 years, Harry. Penguin life expectancy is around 22 in the wild and 30 in captivity.

The penguin nursery is situated next to Folly Farm's penguin enclosure, Penguin Coast. Members of the public can view the penguin chicks while they are in the nursery, although they spend a lot of time in their nest, so are not always visible.