Until the African penguin starts observing federal holidays, Sparks Perkins won’t either.
That is, the morning of December. The 25th will not bring gifts or mistletoe for the 33-year-old San Franciscan, but beak trimmings and fish guts.
A biologist at the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium, Mr. Perkins belongs to that unbreakable ensemble: hospital staff, firefighters, bases, whose work stops without a vacation. Call it essential avian staff, tied to the needs of the 50 resident birds. Weekends, nights – all fair game for any emergency that arises between Mr. The Perkins herd.
“I’ve worked six of the last 10 Christmases,” he said. “That’s just the price of working with these animals.”
Mr. Perkins describes this job as an entry in a daily soap opera. This bird wakes up grumpy, that cheeky one. Keys are stolen from belts. This famous penguin monogamy is relaxing a little.
“Some have wandering eyes. They’ll go off on a little adventure and then come right back,” Mr. Perkins said.
Occasionally, they switch teams entirely. Some time ago, a pair of male Magellanic penguins from Brazil got together unexpectedly.
“Those guys made the most fabulous nest,” said Mr. Perkins recalled. “I remember they were the best interior designers.”
A native of Mississippi, Mr. Perkins has loved birds since the age of 3, when his parents gave him his first parakeet. Macaws, lovebirds and ornamental pigeons followed. Some nights they made 4 a.m. trips to the post office, to pick up a cartload of pheasants he had ordered.
“I was a very different 14-year-old boy,” he said “Instead of playing football after school, I went to the aviaries I built. I had about 70 birds.”
The Academy’s own collection grew recently, with the arrival of two baby African penguins. Given the institution’s role in the preservation of endangered species – Mr. Perkins just returned from a conservation project in South Africa; helping these birds thrive has been paramount. Every morning, Mr. Perkins lifts each chick from its nesting box, places it on a small scale, and records an adorable number of grams. Here it is recommended to gain weight during the holidays.
Penguins possess a quiet if wavering dignity. Penguin chicks don’t have one. They are fat balls of fluff, inept, can’t even be trusted with water. Until this plumage was replaced by juvenile plumage, they would sink like sweet stones. But in captivity they can live for about 30 years, up to twice their wild life. They need stimulation to keep them happy and healthy, and biologists here develop laser pointers, blow bubbles and play colony sounds on an iPad.
The birds are also enriched by the sight of visitors watching to pay. At the height of the pandemic, with no one on the other side of the glass, the staff did yoga for the animals.
This Christmas, Mr. Perkins and his colleagues will find little ways to make the day special, while the birds chirp as usual. They are not pigeons or partridges in a pear tree, they are family.