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Humboldt penguin

Scientific name: Spheniscus humboldti

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ORDER: Sphenisciformes
FAMILY: Spheniscidae

STATS: Height: 26-28 inches, Weight: 10-11 lbs.

The Humboldt penguin has a black band across the chest, a narrow white crown that runs from the top of the head down the neck, and splotchy pink patches on the face, feet, and underneath the wings. It has a larger, stouter bill than most other penguins its size. Unlike other birds, the feathers on a penguin’s wings are very short. During a molt, birds can look very scruffy.

This penguin is found on the mainland coast and offshore islands of Chile and Peru. It spends up to 75 percent of its time out to sea. While at sea, it stays in cold, nutrient rich areas.

Rocky coasts and open oceans

Penguins' torpedo-shaped bodies are designed for moving efficiently through water. Humboldt penguins normally cruise at five to seven miles an hour. They use their wings to help them swim and their webbed feet to help steer underwater. Penguin bones tend to be denser than those of flying birds, since the extra weight helps them dive to greater depths.

Due to the fact that penguins spend so much time at sea, the Humboldt penguin’s eyesight is adapted to ocean colors. It is more sensitive to violet, blue, and green. Their eyes, like most birds, have a second transparent eyelid, serving as "goggles" while the animal is underwater.

A penguin’s black and white color helps camouflage it when it's swimming. When seen from below, its white belly blends with the light cast on the ocean surface; when seen from above, the black blends with the dark ocean depths. This is called countershading.
When Humboldt penguins dive, it is rare for them to be underwater for more than one to two minutes. The result of longer dives is that the body is starved of oxygen. To counteract this, penguins have higher concentrations of oxygen-carrying proteins in their blood.

Penguins use oil from a preening gland on their feathers and edges of their flippers. This waterproofs their feathers.

Penguin feathers are highly specialized, overlapping each other in order to improve waterproofing and insulation. New feathers will grow underneath existing feathers and push them out as they grow. Unlike many other birds, old feathers are not totally discarded until new feathers are in place. Since waterproofing and insulation are compromised during molt, penguins must remain on land until their plumage (feathers) is in its best possible condition. This may take two to three weeks in Humboldt penguins.

The Humboldt does not have to drink water since it takes in seawater as it hunts. Like all penguins, it has a special gland that removes salt from the body after it swallows saltwater.

Humboldt penguins do not appear to have a specific breeding season. However, breeding activity appears to be highest between March and December.

Although penguins are monogamous, pairs separate during the year and only reunite to breed. The male tends to arrive at the nest site first so he can find a suitable nesting area and wait for his mate to arrive. If she does not arrive, he will actively pursue any unpaired females. Unfortunately for males, there are generally more males than females, so competition can be fierce. If a female does not find her mate from the previous year, she will generally choose a male that is close to her original nest site.

Humboldt penguins excavate long burrows in the soil or guano that open into a nesting cavity. If soil or guano is not available they will also use natural crevices or caves, but these are not ideal and are in short supply. Nearly 90 percent of the time, Humboldt penguins use the same nest site each year. If a pair breaks up, the male retains the nest site.
Although males do most of the nest building, both adults incubate the eggs. Two eggs are usually laid and hatch after 40 days. When conditions are at their best, penguins may even nest twice and raise two sets of chicks.

Both adults care for the chicks. Adults usually leave in early morning to search for food and return later that day to feed the young. When areas have been over-fished by commercial fishermen, the adults have to go farther and farther out to sea to find enough food. In some cases, this leads to nearly 100 percent chick mortality.

Prey to seals as adults, birds and fox as chicks. Predator to small fish.

Schooling fish such as anchovies and sardines

Listed as CITES Appendix I and Vulnerable with IUCN. Until recently, scientists thought that Humboldt penguin populations were decreasing, but not at an alarming rate. It is now known that the decline has reached crisis proportions.

Declining fish populations can dramatically affect the future of all penguin species. Over-harvesting of fish not only lessens the amount of food available to penguins, changing the marine community as a whole, but it also decreases penguin populations due to penguins being caught in fishing nets and being injured or drowned.

Penguin populations are also affected by pollution. Pesticides, plastics and heavy metals can reach our oceans and affect penguin populations. Nets, plastic “six-pack” rings, and other trash have also been known to kill many species of penguins, including Humboldt penguins.

The harvesting of guano (feces) has taken its toll on Humboldt penguins. Guano is considered a valuable fertilizer and is harvested by scraping an area right down to the bedrock. Crevice nesting penguins, like Humboldt penguins, need a minimum of seven inches of substrate for their burrows. When guano is removed from an area, it reduces the amount of suitable breeding space for penguins.

Climate change can also have a profound impact on penguin nesting sites and food sources. Humboldt penguins are dependant on the cool, nutrient-rich waters off the coast of South America. Slight changes in the Humboldt Current that carries the cooler water to this area could devastate the species. More recent studies have also suggested that climate change is probably one of the greatest potential threats to penguins.

Climate change may cause alterations in ocean currents. This will cause fish populations to decline or will cause the species of fish living in specific areas to change. Penguins are more likely to be affected than other sea birds because they are larger than most other sea birds and cannot travel large distances as quickly.

Since 1995, Chile has had a 30-year ban on the hunting and capture of Humboldts, and four of the major breeding colonies are protected. Humboldts in Peru have benefited from guano reserves, where the birds can make their nests. Guano mining in the reserves is limited, and those who mine must sign a contract to protect the penguins.


  • The Humboldt penguin is named after the chilly Humboldt Current, which flows north from Antarctica along the Pacific Coast of South America. The current was named after the 18th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt.
  • Sedgwick County Zoo is one of only 12 zoos in the nation to house Humboldt penguins.


  1. Williams, Tony D. Bird Families of the World – The Penguin. Oxford University Press 1995
  2. del Hoyo, Josep et all. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edition 1996.
  3. INCN Redlist.  June 5, 2008


Published: July 2008

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