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Detroit zoo's penguins waddle back to exhibit after a two-year closure

Two chinstrap penguins waddle on artificial stone painted white.
Detroit Zoo
More than 75 penguins call the Detroit Zoo's Polk Penguin Conservation Center home.

After two years of repairs, the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center is back open.

When you first enter what zoo officials call the world's largest exhibit dedicated to the birds, you’ll see a huge window looking into the South American area of the enclosure.

On the other side of the glass are groups of one and a half feet tall rockhopper penguins waddling around.

You might notice a tuxedoed gentoo swimming and rocketing out of the water, like a dolphin.

Or a macaroni, sporting yellow feathers on its head, might come up to the glass to examine you, as if you’re the one on display.


These little birds eat over 80 pounds of fish a day, and there’s one other thing that can’t be avoided when taking care of the more than 75 penguins here, according to Lindsay Ireland.

"The cleaning ....That's the hardest part of any zookeepers job really, but it's necessary."

Ireland is a member of the animal care staff who has been working with the zoo’s penguins for about 15 years.

"My favorite species would be the macaronis. They're just very, very curious and always want to know what you're doing," she said. "I would say they're the friendliest species that we have."

There are also Kings and two pairs of chinstrap penguins.

Our habitat here is wonderful them for them. I think it really brings out a lot of their natural behavior.
Jessica Jozwiak, Bird Department Supervisor

Detroit's zoo opened one of the world's first indoor penguin exhibits, its Penguinarium, more than 50 years ago.

This new state-of-the-art conservation center debuted in 2016. It has a 25-foot deep diving pool surrounded by massive artificial cliffs, snow makers and even a jacuzzi-like machine that makes bubbles for the penguins to play in.

Jessica Jozwiak is the bird department supervisor.

"Our habitat here is wonderful them for them. I think it really brings out a lot of their natural behavior," she said.


Zoo visitors are also able to get a rare view of the penguins swimming underwater in tunnels below the main exhibit.

"Even though I've watched a lot of it in my years that I've been here, I never get tired of watching them. And you know, I'm always learning something new," Jozwiak said. "The underwater views here are just spectacular."

It’s been two years since the center closed to the public due to faulty waterproofing.

During repairs, the penguins were moved over to their old exhibit, but with the new facility now reopened, it hasn’t taken long for them to readjust.

"They just kind of fit right in. I mean, they were familiar with it, so they just kind of went about their normal business," Jozwiak said.

And that’s especially important because it’s the start of breeding season for the birds. Jozwiak explains all of the species, except the kings, build nests where they’ll pair up and lay their eggs.

"Here we give them their, like, river rocks and they pick those up and put those in their nest."

And building nests is serious business. In the middle of the exhibit, a gentoo searches for the perfect rock. It closely inspects three different stones before making its choice and making a break back to its nesting site.

On the other side of the enclosure, the three-foot tall king penguins are beginning to molt. After that, they’ll find a mate and lay eggs, keeping them warm on their feet.

You might wonder if the animal care staff can tell all the birds apart. For the most part, yes, but they also have bands on their flippers to identify them.

And there’s at least one that sticks out from the rest. He's a king penguin named Russell who has partial melanism. That means he has a mutation that makes his coloring much darker than typical.

"He's got his, like, upper half is black, where it should be yellow," Ireland said.

A group of King penguins stand on artificial ice. Behind them on cliffs are several Gentoo Penguins. On the right, a penguin with black feathers where there should be yellow preens itself.
Sophia Saliby
Russell, a young king penguin (right), preens himself. He has partial melanism which makes his skin and feathers black.

"He's young. He still acts very much like a chick. He still whistles and like kind of begs at all the other birds and us like a chick."

The animal care staff gets to know the penguins for years. Jozwiak has spent three decades with these birds.

"They really do have all their own personalities. You know, some are more outgoing. Some are more people-focused. Some are more curious," she said.

Years ago, Ireland returned from maternity leave. She remembers being greeted by a penguin named Mabel.

"She came running up to me screaming. It was like she missed me. I know I'm being anthropomorphic, but it really did seem like, you know, she wanted to kind of hang out with me," she said. "She was wondering where I was."

Now that the birds are resettled, Ireland says staff are focused on what they call the “soap opera” of breeding season. And soon enough, new chicks will join the colony.


Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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