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Penguin chicks hike cuteness factor at Maryland Zoo

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is a hot spot for chicks -- penguin chicks to be specific.

The zoo welcomed three African penguin chicks in November. The first two, hatched Nov. 5 and 9, have reached eight weeks and are getting daily “swim lessons” behind the scenes.

“Right now they are quite large. They are not small little chicks any more,” said Jen Kottyan, the zoo’s avian collection and conservation manager. The chicks grow quickly in the wild and reach full size in about three months, she added. Keepers are hopeful a few more chicks will hatch this winter.

The chicks stay with their parents for the first three weeks and after that, when they can regulate their own body temperature, they are hand-reared by the keepers and trained to go to them for food. The chicks lose their downy feathers at between six and eight weeks and sport gray plumage that distinguishes the juveniles from the adults.

The newest members of the flock won’t be visible to visitors for a few months. But zoo guests can see the other 65 African penguins in their newly renovated habitat, Penguin Coast.

“It’s 360 degrees. You can get to any spot of our exhibit and you have a great view,” Kottyan said.

The environment includes a 185,000-gallon pool with a tank that releases waves of water and a deep swimming channel where visitors can get an underwater view from the new Penguin Education Center.

Kottyan describes the Penguin Coast as “amazing” and says it betters the life of the penguins, improves conditions for the keepers and offers a better experience for the guests.

The Maryland Zoo’s African penguin flock is the largest penguin colony in North America. Kottyan said through breeding the birds they would like to increase their number to 100, the capacity of the new Penguin Coast environment.

The zoo breeds penguins, and other animals in its collection, according to guidelines set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The AZA’s African penguin Species Survival Plan looks at the genetic makeup of individual birds and identifies the best pairings in order to keep the population sustainable.

“It’s like a or eHarmony for penguins,” Kottyan said. “It’s a dating service.”

The African penguins’ native climate is very similar to that of Baltimore, with Maryland experiencing slightly hotter summers and colder winters.

“They are well-suited to withstand the little bit of difference,” Kottyan said.

If it gets too hot in the summer, the pool can be chilled to 65 to 68 degrees. In the winter, the dock is heated to keep it snow- and ice-free for the birds.

Visitors can watch penguin feedings, scheduled for 10:30-10:45 a.m. and 3:30-3:45 p.m. daily. Penguin keeper chats are held daily at 1-1:15 p.m.

The penguins can be experienced close up in Penguin Encounters, 20 to 30 minute tours for small groups. Prices start at $35 per person. Behind the scenes tours are also available for the Penguin Coast as well as for the lions, giraffes, polar bears, elephants and rhinos. Rates start at $300. For details, click on the website’s Visitor Information.

About: Situated on 135 acres, the Maryland Zoo’s collection includes nearly 200 species of birds, big cats, primates, elephants, polar bears, giraffes, other mammals large and small, amphibians and reptiles.

Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily March through December. In January and February, hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday through Monday; closed Christmas Day and Thanksgiving.

Tickets: Admission is $18 for adults, $15 for seniors 65 and up, $13 for children ages 2 to 11, free for zoo members. For January and February, all tickets are $10.

Location: 1876 Mansion House Drive, in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. Free parking is available on the grounds.

Info: For details, visit Follow the chicks’ development and get regular infusions of internet cuteness on the zoo’s Facebook page.