Until the African Penguin began observing federal holidays, neither did Sparks Perkins.
That is to say, the morning of December 25 will not bring gifts and mistletoe for the 33-year-old San Franciscan, but beak trimmings and fish tripe.
Biologist at the Steinhart Aquarium of the California Academy of Sciences, Mr. Perkins belongs to this infallible group – hospital staff, firefighters, leaders – whose work does not stop during the holidays. Call them essential avian personnel, committed to the needs of the fifty or so resident birds. Weekends, Late Nights: Anything goes for any emergencies that arise among Mr. Perkins’ herd.
“I’ve worked six of the last 10 Christmases,” he says. “It’s just the price to pay for working with these animals.”
Mr. Perkins describes this job as entering a daily soap opera. This bird wakes up grumpy, this one sassy. The keys are stolen from the belts. This famous penguin monogamy is relaxing a bit.
“Some have wandering eyes. They’ll wander off for a little adventure and come right back,” Mr Perkins said.
Sometimes they change teams completely. A while ago, a pair of male Magellanic penguins from Brazil bonded unexpectedly.
“These boys made the most fabulous nest,” recalls Mr. Perkins. “I remember they were the best interior designers.”
Originally from Mississippi, Mr. Perkins has loved birds since the age of 3, when his parents gave him his first parakeet. Macaws, lovebirds and ornamental pigeons followed. Some nights brought 4 a.m. trips to the post office, to pick up a cartload of pheasants he had ordered.
“I was a very different 14-year-old boy” he said. “Instead of playing soccer after school, I used to go to the aviaries I built. I had about 70 birds.
The Academy’s own collection has grown recently, with the arrival of two African penguin hatchlings. Given the institution’s role in preserving endangered species – Mr Perkins has just returned from a conservation project in South Africa – helping these birds to thrive has been paramount. Every morning, Mr. Perkins takes each chick out of its nest box, places it on a small ladder and records an adorable gram count. Gaining weight during the holidays is encouraged here.
Penguins possess a calm but wavering dignity. Penguin chicks do not have one. They’re chubby fluffy orbs, incompetent, they can’t even be trusted in the water. Until that down was replaced by juvenile plumage, they would sink like soft little stones. But in captivity, they can live for around 30 years, which is twice their lifespan in the wild. They need stimulation to stay happy and healthy, and biologists here are bursting laser pointers, blowing bubbles and playing colony sounds on an iPad.
Birds are also enriched by the sight of visitors watching them. At the height of the pandemic, with no one on the other side of the glass, the staff did yoga for the animals.
This Christmas, Mr. Perkins and his colleagues will find small ways to make the day special, while the birds chirp as usual. They’re not doves or partridges in a pear tree, but they’re family.