Partially blind penguin makes ‘guide-bird’ friend

'Squid' runs her beak along 'Penguin's' to find his food as she can't locate a fish on her own
'Squid' runs her beak along 'Penguin's' to find his food as she can't locate a fish on her own

A partially blind penguin at a bird park in Surrey has made a unique partnership with a fellow penguin that acts as its guide, a keeper has said.

Squid, a three-year-old African penguin that is part of a colony at Birdworld in Farnham, was born with a cataract in 2020.

She struggled to see her food, but did not miss out on her daily feed thanks to her friend named Penguin, who guided her around the enclosure and helped her eat.

Polly Bramham, living collections manager at Birdworld, said: “With [Squid’s] partial sight she couldn’t pinpoint the fish herself, so she would stand up next to Penguin. She could guide her beak along his beak to find the fish. And that’s how they’ve been ever since.”

The friendship formed when the birds were about two and a half months old. It is the first of its kind for Birdworld and the two have become “little celebrities” at the park, Ms Bramham said.

Penguin Beach, the enclosure where Squid and Penguin are kept, replicates their natural environment with a sandy beach, rocky areas and a pool. There are currently 53 African penguins which have been living there since 2011.

“If something happens on the beach, then Squid immediately looks for Penguin because she needs his guidance and his solidness to get her out of any situation,” Ms Bramham said.

“Squid basically learned that with [Penguin’s] good eyesight and his confidence around the keepers and around feed time that he was the one to stick by. So she just got in the habit of stealing his fish.”

Penguin was not given a name when he was first born as he was so ill, and now only answers to the name Penguin. “There’s a keeper superstition that you don’t name something until you’re sure that it’s going to survive,” Ms Bramham said.

Squid was named because she “broke into a boat” when she was younger.

“We named her Squid as if she was the big gigantic squid in the tales that have taken down the mighty ship. And of course she’s probably one of the smallest penguins in the colony, so it was a little bit ironic.”

Squid is the only penguin to have ever been born with a cataract at Birdworld, though cases of cataracts are common amongst older birds. She has not had any operations, but the park is “not discounting” the possibility of an operation in future.

“As with any surgery, it comes with risks; at the moment her condition is stable and I am comfortable she has a full life in the colony for now,” said Ms Bramham.

The African penguin species, which Squid and Penguin belong to, are endangered and considered of high conservation interest.

“Their decline is so rapid that they’ll be extinct in about 10 years,” said Ms Bramham.

The decrease in numbers has taken place over the past 100 years because of overfishing, rising sea temperatures and change in the pattern of the movement of the fish that the penguins rely on.

In 2023, British bird populations were devastated by a strain of bird flu which led to more than 200 outbreaks in kept birds. In January, more than 200 penguin chicks died of bird flu in the Falkland Islands.

Birdworld did not experience any cases of the disease but it increased biosecurity measures and sometimes closed walk-through exhibits to the public.

There are 18 species in the penguin family across the globe, of which 11 are globally threatened, according to BirdLife on behalf of the IUCN Red List.

Birdworld is home to two of these species: the Humboldt, which originates in South America, and the African.

Squid and Penguin are classed as teenage penguins. They are such close friends that there is speculation over whether they will pair up as a couple, Ms Bramham said.

“We’re all watching to see. You can’t predict who they’re going to pair up with because there’s a lot of friendships in the colonies as well as the partners,” she said.

Although they have adult feathers, the park doesn’t expect them to breed for another year or two.

“If they do decide to form that additional bond, nest together, then that sets them up. But it may be that they remain good friends but actually partner up with somebody else.”

Penguin friendship groups are common in colonies and they range in size from two to 10 birds.

“There will be pockets on the beach of each little group and gang and then they will get together for the joint colony activities,” said Ms Bramham. “They’re very much based on character”.

Squid, who is a “feisty, inquisitive penguin”, paired up with Penguin, who is more “laid back” in character, which Ms Bramham said makes for a perfect friendship.

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