The jackass penguin (also called the African penguin or Blackfooted penguin) is a flightless seabird, and it is found nowhere in the world except off the coast of southern Africa.
Named after a donkey because of the loud, braying noise it makes, the Jackass penguin is no fool. It has so far survived many oil spills, poachers and predatory fishermen who have depleted its food stocks.
This flightless seabird is found nowhere in the world except off the coast of southern Africa, thus making it endemic to this area. It breeds on 24 offshore islands between Namibia and Port Elizabeth, including Dassen, Dyer, Jutten and Robben Island in the Western Cape region of South Africa and Boulders Beach and Betty's Bay near Cape Town. Nesting on the mainland is unusual for jackass penguins because they are ground-nesting birds and are vulnerable to the many predators on the mainland.
Jackass penguins used to nest by burrowing into guano (bird droppings which have accumulated into a hardish substance, sometimes several metres deep). Most of the nutrient-rich guano was removed for fertiliser in the 19th century. Penguins now nest in burrows in sand, under overhanging rocks, under bushes, or even in the open. Jackass penguins can breed at any time of the year, usually laying two eggs. Most adult birds feed during the day and the chicks are fed regurgitated food in the late afternoon. Fish eaten include sardine, maasbanker and anchovy. Squid are also eaten.
Penguins are thought to mate for life. While one partner hunts, the other stays at the nest without eating or drinking, sometimes for up to a month. The hunting partner will sometimes go more than 10 miles out in search of something tasty, partially digesting it before feeding it to the chick which - not surprisingly, given this lavish treatment - stays near the nest for several months. Like other penguins, the Jackass has flippers instead of wings and spends most of its time at sea. Out of the water, penguins move with an ungainly rolling waddle, thanks to their short legs and stubby, torpedo-shaped bodies - but they can keep pace with a walking human.
Penguins lost their ability to fly millions of years ago; they "fly" underwater by using the same motions that other birds use to soar through air. Using their feet to steer, they dive deeper than any other bird and can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes.
The Jackass is covered in thick, short feathers that keep out water. Its back and face feathers are bluish black but the belly, neck and parts of the head are covered in feathers of the snowiest white. Across the chest runs a distinctive stripe of black feathers. The average Jackass penguin weighs 6.3 pounds and stands 28 inches tall. They live an average of 20 years, although they have been known to reach 30 in captivity.
Jackass Penguins are among the least studied and are now classed as endangered: their numbers have been depleted by commercial egg and guano collectors and by the overfishing of anchovies and pilchards.
Seals, which used to eat the same small fish, now increasingly prey on the Jackass.
Jackass numbers have also been thinned out by a number of oil spills over the past 30 years; during the 1994 Apollo Sea disaster off South Africa, about 10,000 birds were oiled. Authorities managed to save nearly half of those.
In June/July 2000, thousands of Jackass penguins were snatched squawking and snapping from their nests on Robben and Dassen Islands to save them from the deadly oil spill caused by the bulk carrier Treasure, which sunk off the southern coast of South Africa. The penguins were trucked accross the country to Port Elizabeth. Three of these penguins, dubbed Peter, Percy and Pamela, were followed by satellite. Their 1000 kilometre swim home made them the most famous Jackass penguins yet.
The Jackass penguin colonies at Boulders Beach and Robben Island are very popular tourist attractions.