Day 23: On Christmas Day, No Rest for the Weary. (Or the Guy Who Feeds the Penguins.)

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Day 23: On Christmas Day, No Rest for the Weary. (Or the Guy Who Feeds the Penguins.)

Sparks Perkins won’t be observing federal holidays any time soon, unless African penguins start doing the same.

In other words, instead of presents and festive celebrations on Dec. 25, this 33-year-old resident of San Francisco can look forward to trimming beaks and handling fish innards.

As a biologist at the California Academy of Sciences’s Steinhart Aquarium, Perkins falls into the category of essential workers — think hospital workers, firemen, point guards — whose duties continue regardless of holidays. Consider him crucial bird personnel, committed to the needs of around 50 resident avians. Neither weekends, late nights or holidays can halt any emergencies that may arise in Perkins’s flock.

“I have clocked in on six out of the past 10 Christmases,” he mentioned. “That’s simply the price to pay for working with these animals.”

Perkins likens his work to stepping into an everyday melodrama. One bird might wake up grumpy, another feisty. Keys have been known to disappear from belts. Even the famed penguin monogamy takes a break sometimes.

“Some are prone to drifting. They may stray for a brief dalliance then return,” noted Perkins.

On occasion, penguins swap alliances altogether. Not too long ago, two male Magellanic penguins from Brazil formed an unexpected bond.

“Those guys built a fantastic nest,” recalled Perkins. “As I remember, they were exceptional interior decorators.”

A Mississippi native, Perkins has adored birds ever since receiving his first parakeet at three years old. His bird family expanded to include macaws, lovebirds, and ornamental pigeons. Some nights involved 4 a.m. runs to the post office to collect a cart of pheasants he had ordered.

“I was an unusual 14-year-old boy,” he acknowledged. “Instead of joining soccer matches after school, I would head to the aviaries I built. I owned around 70 birds.”

Recently, the Academy’s own collection expanded with the arrival of two African penguin chicks. The institute plays a crucial role in preserving endangered species, and Perkins just got back from a conservation project in South Africa and helping these birds thrive is of utmost importance. Perkins ensures each chick is removed from its nesting box every morning, weighed on a petite scale, and its weight recorded in grams. Gaining weight during the festive season is encouraged in this case.

Penguins carry a quiet and endearing dignity, while penguin hatchlings completely lack it. They are chubby bundles of fluff, clumsy and not water-trained. With their down yet to be replaced by juvenile plumage, they’d sink in water. However, these birds can live up to 30 years in captivity, almost double their lifespan in the wild. To keep them happy and healthy, they require enrichment activities like laser pointers, bubbles and colony sounds on an iPad.

The birds also find enrichment in being observed by visitors. During the peak of the pandemic, the staff engaged in yoga sessions in front of the animals when visitor interactions were not possible.

This Christmas, Perkins along with his co-workers will seek small ways to make the day entertaining, while the birds continue to chatter and squawk in their routine way. They may not be turtle doves or partridges in a pear tree, but they are family nonetheless.

Day 23: Even on Christmas Day, There’s No Break for the Tired (Or the Penguin Feeder.)