There’s friendly rivalry between staff at a Devon zoo – to see who can identify the most penguins. The job of penguin patroller at Living Coasts, Torquay’s coastal zoo, is one of the most unusual in the country; a key skill is being able to recognise individual penguins in a flock that numbers over 100…
Penguin patroller Jane Walker can positively ID 72 out of the 111 penguins at Living Coasts. Her colleague Lauren Taylor can name about 60. While the penguins can also be recognised by the unique ID numbers on their flippers, if staff know the birds then they know when they are not themselves, and can spot at an early stage if they are off-colour. And they both take a certain professional pride in recognizing the birds.
The current Living Coasts penguin patrollers include Jane Walker, Lauren Taylor and Shaun Wilson. Their role is to keep an eye on both free-ranging penguins and excited visitors to make sure everyone has a good time and no one gets stepped on or pecked. They are out in all weathers, welcoming guests to Penguin Beach and talking about the birds.
They have to watch a flock of 91 African penguins and 20 macaroni penguins, as well as 137,000 visitors each year.
Jane, originally from Birmingham, sold her business and her house to come to Devon and Living Coasts, where she has been first a volunteer then a member of staff. “We all recognise them in different ways. I used to count spots or look at their tag colours, but now I mainly go by their faces. I’m normally the one who IDs the birds if their tags are lost!”
So how DO you recognise a penguin? Lauren: “By their facial features, markings, walk, habits or the shape of the beak, depending on the individual.” How long did it take her to be able to recognise so many? “A couple of years of continual practice!”
Jane: “Of the African penguins, Crosby has spots in a C shape on the bottom left of his tummy. Charlie has a crossed beak. Mini is quite small, with two spots diagonally; her mom Rosie has two spots also but one above the other. Rosie’s other daughter Alice facially looks just like her.
“When it comes to the macaroni penguins, Solly has a crossed beak, Mrs. Slick has a slicked over crest, Ceebee has a floppy crest and one spot in the middle of his tummy.
“When you spend a lot of time with them it becomes obvious at a glance who is who. You can see family resemblances. Ceebee has his dad’s crest, as does his sister Millie. Willow’s crest is straight like her dad’s and she has a similar head shape.”
Jane, a lifelong penguin enthusiast, has been doing the job for around 10 years, Lauren over 7.
Do the penguins recognize them? Lauren: “I feel that some of them do. It’s always sad to see birds go when they move to another collection. But new birds mean new faces to recognise!”
Originally from Oldham in Greater Manchester, Lauren has lived in Torquay for 32 years. She started at Living Coasts in 2007, working first in the shop and café; she joined the Penguin Patrol in October 2009. Lauren is a qualified health care assistant, and works in this role alongside her zoo job.
Not surprisingly, the zoo keepers are no slouches when it comes to bird recognition. Senior Keeper Lois Rowell said: “When I worked closely with the penguins, I could recognise the majority by facial features, posture or habits. The penguin patrollers have a definite advantage, it is their job to stand there all day and watch them. Us keepers are hurrying about looking after all the other species, like seals and wading birds and octopus!”
Kerry-Anne – “Kez” – Brownen has been working with the penguin flock since 2013, and can recognise 50 to 60 of them. Colleague Jason Keller, who only started in 2016, can recognise all the macaroni penguins and about 10 of the African penguins, so around 30 in total.
Living Coasts penguins mingle freely with visitors and are often seen waddling down the footpaths. Zoo spokesperson Phil Knowling said: “A penguin patroller has to be friendly, confident, outgoing but sensible; you must like birds AND people. It’s a great job – you’re out in the sun and the sea air all day with some of the most amazing birds in the world.
“The penguins have no fear and are quite happy to investigate shoe laces, handbags and toggles on coats. It’s an amazing experience to go walking with penguins – you can get really close. We just need to make sure people don’t get over-excited and try to chase or pet the birds.”
Shaun: “It’s the best job in the world if you have enough clothes in the winter and enough sun block in the summer!” Living Coasts is a registered charity. For more information go to www.livingcoasts.org.uk or ring 01803 202470.
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