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Confused penguins migrate to nowhere

Thu Jan 16,10:14 PM ET 
By Michael Kahn 

AP Photo Photo

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The penguins at the San Francisco Zoo are swimming around in circles for hours at a time because they have been bamboozled by six new birds into performing a mock migration, officials have said. 

The marathon began late last month when the newcomers joined the colony, leaving the zoo's penguin keeper Jane Tollini scratching her head as to how the birds from an Ohio theme park, convinced the 46 others to start in with the frenzied swimming. 

They are so determined even a lack of water cannot keep the birds from the 130-feet (40 meters) long, 40-feet (12 meters) wide pool. When zoo keepers first drained the pool for cleaning, the penguins simply jumped in and walked around the bottom, Tollini said. 

"I'd like to think I know quite a bit when it comes to penguins but I am at a complete loss when it comes to this one," Tollini said. "The minute the six hit this pool, not only did they get in the pool and stay there, they convinced the other birds to do likewise." 

Normally the penguins at the zoo's so-called Penguin Island spend this part of the year in their burrows, grooming, decorating their habitations and only occasionally waddling out for brief swims in the pool, she added. 


That all changed with the arrival of six Magellan penguins formerly of Sea World in Ohio. Now the birds won't get out of the pool even to eat and no longer listen to Tollini who has names for all the birds and can tell them apart. 

She said the constant swimming also makes it difficult to feed the animals. The penguins used to line up for food but now they just whiz by in the water, getting their food and vitamins on the go as Tollini dispenses food to the passing birds. 

"I've lost complete control of the birds," Tollini said. "I am kind of like a drive-through restaurant now. they see me, see the fish, run past me, grab the fish and keep going." 

While these types of penguins in the wild typically go on migrations of up to 2000 miles (3,219 kms) in search of food, these birds in captivity had never exhibited this type of behavior before. 

Penguin experts say the birds are highly social and curious creatures and suggest the newcomers may have made such a splash that the others simply decided to follow. 

"Usually there are one or two dominant birds," Ian Hiler, director of touring exhibits at Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Somehow these animals came up and showed they are worthy of being followed." 

For her part, penguin keeper Tollini predicts things will get back to normal in February when the onset of the breeding season will hopefully lure the birds back to their burrows. 

"It may be a very stimulating breeding season," she said. "I think they have gotten a new lease on life by doing this."


Copyright 2010 Tim Stouse
Last modified: December 10, 2010
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