March 12, 2018 Our Stories 0

Why are we designing the perfect artificial African penguin nest?

Imagine having your home flattened and all possible building material removed. Raising children in the open, under the relentless glare of the African sun and facing a possible flood everytime it rains. If you manage to survive the elements you have to deal with a barrage of attacks by the ever-present Sea Gull Gang – not an easy task.

The background

Before the advent of artificially produced fertiliser, guano was considered a top quality fertiliser rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Guano (an Inca word for a mix of eggshell, feathers, decayed corpses and bird excrement) was scraped from the penguin breeding islands. On Dyer Island, the guano layer was between 4-6m deep. Penguins used to build their nests by burrowing into the thick layers of guano. This “forced removal” from well protected, temperature controlled burrows to open surface nests, exposed the African Penguin to the harsh African heat and occasional flooding. This “open-plan” living arrangement turned their eggs and chicks into an easy meal for predators like gulls & skuas

But Africa is not for sissy’s and the tenacious African penguin is living proof of that. They like it here and have every intention to stay.  After their house building material was scraped from their breeding colonies and sold as fertilizer, somebody, somewhere decided that the eggs of the African penguin were a delicacy – it was even served in the SA parliament on Wednesday mornings and on the Titanic. Millions of eggs were removed in an entirely unsustainable way.

The African penguin population numbers all but crashed, add oil pollution and competition with the fishing industry to their woe’s and we are left with the very real possibility that the African penguin will be gone from the wild in our lifetime. In 2001, there were an estimated 56,000 breeding pairs, this has now dwindled to a mere 25 000 pairs. A loss of 90 birds per week every week since 1956. If we want the African penguin to survive we need to be more pro-active and work on improving the habitat of the African penguin.

One of the active conservation measures implemented to address the decline in numbers is the provision of artificial nest boxes.  This is an ongoing project.  At the start of the project in 2006, the main aim of the artificial nests was to provide protection from predation.  The original nests were manufactured from fibreglass and although the nests addressed the predation problem, research indicated that the nests became too hot inside. Penguins simply abandoned the nest leaving eggs and chicks behind.

Meeting the housing needs of the African penguin

This started us on the quest for the perfect penguin penthouse. Research told us that the guano burrows provided the penguins with:

  • A constant micro-climate
  • High relative humidity
  • Buffered temperatures
  • Little exposure to the wind
  • Shelter from rain & predation

Testing times

The nest team spent 3 months rigorously field-testing 15 different nest prototypes, each equipped with high-precision sensors, to provide us with information about the micro-climate conditions inside the various test nests.

The “winning” nest material is a ceramic based slurry and the two “winning” designs are referred to as the Rhino and the Tortoise nests. For both designs, the interior volume of the nest was based on measurements of wild guano nests. The nest entrance approximates the largest measured entrance hole for the naturally dug burrows.The Rhino nest simulates the roofline slope measured in those wild nests formed by the angle of excavation while the Tortoise nest is consistently measured in height front-to-back along the midline.Each nest will weigh approximately 9kg and will possess multiple methods of adding additional anchoring to the ground to allow enhanced stability as needed for resistance to wind and other outside influences.

The two “winning” nest designs have flysheets that will be transported unattached to the main portion of the nest and will be installed on location using stainless steel hardware. The nests are designed with attachment points that reliably create the approximately 5cm air insulation barrier between the flysheet and the nest.

We were now ready to present the African penguin with our idea of the perfect penguin penthouse.  To test the preference of the penguins we had to manufacture 200 new nests (100 of each design). These “penguin practice nests” were manufactured by a team from the Masakhane community in Gansbaai. On Bird Island in the Eastern Cape, the nests were assembled by a Coast Care Team.

The new style penguin penthouses were revealed to the penguin populations of Bird Island in the Eastern Cape and Dyer Island in the Western Cape in February 2018. We will still be monitoring the environmental conditions within these nests. But ultimately we need to know that the penguins can successfully breed and raise their chicks in these newly designed penthouses. We would like to thank Sanparks and CapeNature for their continued support of this project. Hopefully, we will be able to provide all the other colonies with the new preferred penguin penthouse before the next breeding season.

We do not aim to save the African penguin from extinction because they are cute waddling comedians on land and the world’s best underwater flyers. They play a vital role in fertilising the fish nurseries around islands, they are part of the biodiversity of our oceans. The African penguin is an indicator species, their demise should have set off alarm bells, years ago but ignorance was bliss. We can no longer afford to be ignorant, we must act. You can be part of this penguin property project, just  #InvestInTheNest .  Click on the link and contribute your R500 towards the perfect penguin penthouse.