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Raising Chicken

images/chicken4.jpg
Chicken and his best buddy Pengie (15cm tall)
Photo Jessica Kemper

Despite his name, Chicken is actually an African Penguin. He was one day old when I found him during a routine penguin count on 25 June 2002 in the old kitchen of the dilapidated main building on Halifax Island, Namibia. Chicken was lying in his nest next to his marginally older, dead sibling, clearly abandoned by his parents, and was screaming his lungs out for food. Normally I would not take any abandoned hatchlings in for rehabilitation, but something inexplicable (perhaps because I know his parents well) made me wrap him up in my T-shirt, stick him into a rusty coffee tin which I found on the beach, balance the tin delicately between my knees while paddling back to the mainland, drive him home and take on the challenge of turning a 52g, still blind, half-frozen and starved chick into a beautiful and confident 3.2kg fledgling. And no, I have no idea why I called him Chicken, he just looked like that was his name.

Chicken at 2 weeks, about to be fed  Exploring the kitchen table
Left: Chicken at 2 weeks, about to be fed
Right: Chicken exploring the kitchen table and reading the newspaper, which I had used as makeshift wallpaper to control the damage to my kitchen wall

Raising Chicken certainly had its moments, like having to take him along to a conference in Swakopmund (800km by car) during the first week of his life, together with all his equipment (hotwater bottles, fish, syringes, towels, toilet paper, tweezers, kettle, vitamins, blender, heater, more toilet paper...). Or having my kitchen walls constantly covered in fishblood, fishscales and Chicken-sneezes or introducing Chicken to the concept of other penguins, and finally having to brave 16 hours in a rickety boat on a very bouncy sea to deliver Chicken to Mercury Island. But then again, Chicken also taught me a lot of things, like how to enthusiastically blend large amounts of raw fish at 6 o'clock in the morning, or how to crush vitamin tablets without them hopping off the table. More importantly, he also introduced me to many subtle nuances of chick behaviour and development that were completely new to me and gave me numerous lessons in advanced penguin-speak.

Posing next to his coffee-tin  Packing Chicken
Left: posing next to his coffee-tin, in which he made his first Atlantic crossing;
Right: Packing Chicken in a crate to take him to Mercury Island

Chicken spent the first month of his life on the kitchen table inside a large red coolerbox, then moved to the lounge and an even more spacious blue plastic trunk complete with beach. The state of my lounge did not really improve during this time as Chicken soon turned into an expert digger and often spent his evenings enthusiastically excavating his beach, covering everything within a 5m radius with sand. As soon as he was old enough, he moved to the rehab pen in Luderitz, and finally the rehab pen on Mercury Island. During the 10 days he spent on Mercury, he was encouraged to mingle with the penguins in the colonies and at the water's edge, and finally, on 25 October 2002, Chicken decided that clearly he was a penguin after all and it was time to hop in the sea and swim north in search of fish and fortune.

Heading out of Luderitz harbour  Arriving at Mercury Island
Left: heading out of Luderitz harbour on board the RV Kuiseb
Right: arriving at Mercury Island

After Chicken, I'm definitely not going to take on another hatchling for a while and am looking forward to some quieter times, without 3-hourly feeding sessions or daily lounge de-beaching exercises, but in retrospect, it was great having him around and I hope to see him again in about a year's time when he should reappear on one of the islands for his moult.


Just before fledging