One of our most endearing birds and the only one of its kind resident on the continent, the African Penguin was previously known as the Jackass Penguin, thanks to its donkey-like braying. Adults weigh as much as 3.5kg and stand up to 70cm tall.
Penguins forage in the open ocean, either alone, in pairs or in small groups, and usually within 40km from their colony. When not caring for chicks at the colony, adults can stay out at sea for up to 5 days. They feed primarily on shoaling fish (like sardine and anchovy) and squid. African Penguins swim at speeds of around 7km/h, and can remain submerged for up to 2 minutes at a time.
African Penguins usually breed in tightly packed colonies, often at any time of the year with specific peak periods in different colonies. Pairs are monogamous and form lifelong bonds, with the male advertising and defending their small territory around the nest. Most colonies are on islands well out of reach of mammalian predators, while a handful are in safe and sheltered areas on the mainland. African Penguins prefer to breed in burrows dug in guano (seabird excrement valued as fertilizer) or sand, but as this has become very rare at some nesting colonies authorities have resorted to making artificial structures available for the purpose. When burrows (natural or artificial) is unavailable, they will nest on open ground but usually these attempts are far less successful in raising chicks. Clutches consist of one to three eggs, incubated for around 40 days by both parents. Chicks leave the nest at between 2 and 3 months old, but remain dependent on their parents for another two months or so thereafter. Newly independent juveniles often disperse as far as 2,000km away from the colonies where they hatched, but most return to their natal colonies again when they reach breeding age at about 4 years old. It is estimated that African Penguins can live to about 27 years in the wild.
African Penguins are restricted to the coasts of Namibia and South Africa. The IUCN classifies it as endangered, owing to a plummeting population as a result of depleting fish stocks (through overfishing and warming oceans) and pollution (most notable from oil spills). Scraping of guano, which destroyed the penguins’ nesting sites, and collection of eggs caused major declines in the population at the start of the 20th century. From a population counted in the millions in the early 1900’s, the total estimated population in 2015 stood at around 80,000 mature birds (probably even fewer now) distributed at 29 breeding colonies (with an estimated 87% of the population breeding at just 8 localities). Boulders Beach, south of Cape Town and managed as part of the Table Mountain National Park, offers probably the most accessible viewing of the species.