Humboldt penguins

We went to London zoo for my littlest's birthday, hoping both boys would enjoy it on a sunny January day. They did indeed, after some initial wailing about being hungry from the eldest was sorted by a very early lunch. The big one tells us the giraffes and penguins were his favourites, and I think his brother would concur (aside from maybe adding meerkats to the list). Much to our surprise, both boys sat and listened to the keepers' talk about the penguins and watched them being fed. On later questioning, the eldest turns out to have actually been listening and watching quite closely, so I wanted to build on his interest for an activity soon after.

Penguins at London Zoo

The penguins at London Zoo are now all Humboldt penguins which hail from Chile rather than the Antarctic (there used to be Rockhoppers too). They have an enclosure which seeks to mimic their beach habitat, and visitors can see them swimming beneath the water through clear panels. The Humboldt penguins are a little shorter than my youngest son (around 70cm) and my eldest enjoyed standing next to the cutouts of different penguin species to measure his own height.  At about a metre tall, he's a little shorter than an Emperor penguin but taller than most other species.

Penguin swimming next to my son

The black and white penguin feathers were discussed in the keepers' talk at the zoo and my son has enjoyed playing with camouflage previously, so I had been mulling over various activities involving making a penguin to give us an opportunity to talk about what he'd learnt but as we don't have black paint or play dough I hadn't yet come up with a plan. However, I had an idea as I was about to throw something in the food waste bin! The birthday that we went to the zoo for had also been celebrated with a cake in the shape of Elmer the Elephant from the David McKee books. For anyone not familiar with the colourful elephant, he has patches of lots of different colours, and as a result I ended up with lots of spare bits of brightly coloured fondant icing. Whilst both boys loved the cake - and the youngest even exclaimed 'El-ma' so it was recognisable to him - I wasn't keen on feeding everyone loads more food colouring and sugar, so was about to throw the excess away when I realised the black and white would make penguins!

Elmer the Elephant in cake form

I had a quick go at making a Humboldt penguin myself and figured out how to make something that looked recognisable:
- Take a big piece of white icing and roll into a pear shape; this will be the body.
- Take a third as much of black and roll into a ball then squash into an oval shape which is a little longer than the body and roll gently onto one side of the body, keeping it detached at the wider end for the tail.
- Make a thin black sausage shape which is twice the length of the body then press onto the front at the sides to make an upside down u-shaped band of black feathers .
- Make flippers from two small balls of black icing squashed to make ovals a little shorter than the body and attach at the sides.
- Make feet from black icing and attach.
- For the head, take a ball of white icing about a fifth the size of the one for the body, and a black ball of the same size.  Split the black into two, sandwich it either side of the white and roll together to form a ball with black top and bottom.
- Make a beak from a smaller piece of black (about a third of what you used for the head), squash it into a pyramid shape and attach to the head, then attach the head to the body.

Making his penguin

I showed my penguin to my son, and asked if he'd like to make one.  He was immediately keen, and I helped him to make his own - he likes play dough, but usually confines himself to making patterns and stamping out shapes in flat pieces, so I wasn't sure what he'd make of it.  He was actually quite good at following the instructions, and just needed help getting the right amounts and sticking things together.  He was proud of his finished penguin and decided it was called Hummy the Humboldt, but that it needed somewhere to live.

'Hummy' the penguin

I found some sugar paper to create a penguin beach like the one at the zoo, and the two penguins stood on the 'sand' together for a few seconds before my son decided they might be hungry.  This led to a discussion about what they eat - we knew it was fish from what we'd seen at the zoo, but a little online research suggests that they eat anchovies, sardines and herring, so I made three different colours of fish shapes whilst my son fashioned a bucket from blue and red icing.  The information I found also suggested that they eat cephalopods - these include octopus and squid, so I made an octopus and squid shape and we had a chat about how they were different (the octopus had 8 legs and the squid had 10 - well, 8 arms and 2 tentacles - and he counted them to check I'd made them correctly!).

Fishing penguins look black from above

I'd wanted to make the penguins to talk about camouflage, so we put them in the sea and looked at them from above, with mostly only their black 'feathers' visible.  To predators above, they look dark against a dark ocean.  We then picked them up and looked from underneath, and they looked mostly white, so to predators in the sea who want to eat them, they appear light against the sky and are therefore less visible.

Well fed penguins - a choice of anchovies, sardines, herring, octopus and squid

A spur of the moment idea turned into over an hour of fun, with my son feeding his penguins and talking about them and what they eat.  The funniest thing though was that, in all of this time, it never occurred to him that they were made of the same icing he'd enjoyed eating on the Elmer cake and that he could have shared the penguins' fish feast...!