The Humboldt penguin is something of an oddity in the penguin community; rather than making its home on the icy floes of Antarctica, this South American bird prefers the rocky inlets and temperate waters on the Peruvian and Chilean coasts. Small and shy, these penguins are often confused for their larger cousins the Magellanic penguins, who share some of the same territory. Listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the Humboldt penguin is considered extremely sensitive to food chain disruptions and habitat loss through human encroachment.
Spehniscus humbolti is named for a chilly current that winds through the penguins' habitat. Like almost all penguins, the species has tightly packed layers of feathers that provide insulation and waterproofing against the relatively cool waters of the eastern South American coast. Naturally shy around humans, Humboldts are quite sociable with one another and live in large groups along the rocky coast.
The Humboldt penguin reaches sexual maturity anywhere between its second and seventh year, and do not have a specific mating season. The birds generally prefer elevated nesting sites that provide shelter and some protection. Nests usually have between one and three eggs, and they are incubated alternately by both parents during the 40 days from laying to hatching. As chicks, the birds are carefully guarded by one parent while the other searches for food. Chicks molt their baby feathers after about three months, regrowing a full adult coat at this time.
An adult Humboldt penguin will stand about 18 inches (45.7 cm) and weigh around 10 lbs(4.5 kg). In the wild, birds live about 20 years, though zoo specimens can actually survive up to a decade longer. Their backs are brown or black, while their chest and area around the eyes is white. Humboldts dine on small fish and crustaceans; thus, any disruption to the fish population can severely disturb the penguins as well. According to IUCN studies, the breeding population has dropped steadily throughout the 20th century, and may now require human protection to rebound.
There are several threats to the survival of the species, the most prominent of which is the poaching of birds and entanglement in fishermen's nets. There is some evidence of the birds being captured and sold on the exotic animal black market, which can severely endanger population numbers. Nesting sites are often destroyed by the human harvesting of the birds guano, which is used in some products. The Humboldt penguin is also subject to predation from larger animals, including foxes and cats.