African penguin

An African penguin chick towels off after his bath. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / November 23, 2011)

When it comes to water, penguins aren't naturals.

As a matter of fact, "some of them are terrified," says Bethany Wlaz, a keeper at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

So each time African penguins are born into the zoo's breeding program for the endangered birds, someone like Wlaz becomes their swimming coach. But first comes the equally terrifying introduction to being wet.

Soft as a cotton ball and about the size of a roasted chicken, Male One — hatched on Oct. 12 — is lowered into a stainless steel sink by Wlaz and Betty Dipple, another animal keeper.

"Araaah," the bird protests, as a stream of lukewarm water washes over its head and flippers. "Araaah."

Back and belly, tail feathers and webbed feet, nothing escapes the faucet. Five minutes later, the penguin's first bath is in the can.

While Male One is being dried and wrapped in a fluffy towel, Male Two — four days younger — gets the same treatment accompanied by a similar donkey-like braying response.

Puffs of gray down float in the air. At six weeks old, the chicks are molting to make room for waterproof feathers, the kind that are a necessary component of swimming.

"They're getting the full salon service," says Wlaz.

Doting on African penguins has been a Maryland Zoo specialty for more than three decades. With 55-65 birds living at the moat-enclosed area known as Rock Island, the zoo has one of the largest breeding colonies in the country. (The other is at the New England Aquarium.)

The work is of global importance because African penguins, found only along the southern shore and the islands of the continent, are teetering on the edge of extinction. Their numbers have declined from as many as 4 million in the early 1900s to 60,000 in 2010, according to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. Fewer than half of them are estimated to be breeding pairs.

African penguin eggs were targeted up until the 1960s by humans, who considered them a delicacy and scooped them up by the millions. Their habitat has been destroyed by commerce and oil spills, and overfishing and climate change have depleted their food, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

The female penguin lays a clutch of two eggs in a sandy burrow. The male takes its turn sitting on the eggs during the 40-day incubation period and both birds search for food. However, the strain of finding fish for the newborns often leads the parents to abandon one chick.

South Africa's northernmost penguin colony went extinct in 2006 and others are threatened, according to the conservation foundation.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has developed a species survival plan to map out breeding to ensure a strong genetic pool while scientists and conservation groups try to stabilize the population. The Maryland Zoo keeps breeding pairs on hand and distributes other penguins to zoos for display or breeding.

The parents of Male One and Male Two — names are coming, zoo officials promise — came to Baltimore a year ago. The father hailed from Tampa and the mother from Memphis. They quickly became a family of four.

This year came two more chicks, each weighing less than 4 ounces. The newborns spent three weeks with their parents, eating regurgitated fish and rapidly doubling their birth weight.

The keepers took over the duties, gradually increasing the size and amount of fish served three times a day. Last Wednesday was the first day for squid.

"It's hard to have an entirely bad day when you're around penguins," says Dipple as she slides another squid chunk into the gaping black beak of Male One.