Penguin Rehab

Table for Two

Despite the pools, saunas and (really very excellent, I might add) maid service, the rehab center is still a working hospital, complete with an intensive care unit. Birds are notoriously good at hiding illness until the very last moment. A casual stroll past the ill and healthy birds show very little to distinguish between them, even in the ICU.

But then sometimes you get birds you know are really sick, and your heart aches for them. I held a penguin so bony and frail, I thought for sure he was going to die in my arms as he got his injections. It’s moments like those you miss the aggressive hiss and angry bite.

At the time I had wondered from how near the throes of death rehab could snatch the birds. I’m happy to say within a few weeks the penguin I’d held was standing quite beautifully with bright eyes and glossy, black feathers in the outdoor pen, a sign of being on the mend.

As birds’ strength increases so, too, do their appetites, often with amusing results. On more than one occasion several Hartlaub’s Gulls (those small, white birds you see everywhere) walked right past their chopped fillets and swallowed whole fishtails instead, waddling around with their necks bulging out to three times their usual size. The first time it happened I thought the birds were going to choke to death, but no, they just sit there like satisfied opportunists, digesting the meal that was meant for the much larger Kelp Gulls.

Hartlaub’s Gulls

It’s funny to watch but also kind of annoying. A lot of work goes into preparing the fish for all the different species at the center. When the birds eat one another’s food it almost feels like they’ve sent back an inferior dish at a restaurant, despite it all pretty much being some form of sardine. And really, it does not take many days in penguin / gull food prep to appreciate this multifaceted, mealtime workhorse of a fish.

How do I cut thee? Let me count the ways…

Penguins get whole sardines (nearly shoved down their throats, but that’s another story), while terns expect their fillets spread out like a glittering mosaic (shiny skin side up). Chopped sardines (complete with oozing organs) go to the gulls, and sardines with their fins removed get blended with other stuff into a formula for underweight birds. Pretty much any way you can slice or dice a sardine, it’s done for one species or another.

The days spent working in the kitchen kind of turned me off eating sardines myself for quite a while. Mr. Omar used to hate picking me up at the end of the day because I basically reeked of sardines with various degrees of freshness.

Like most things though, you learn really to appreciate the fish when it’s gone. Once a fish shortage saw the beautiful, silvery fish replaced with bait fish and mullet. That day, I think Mr. Omar would have had me ride home on the roof if he could.

The fact that bait fish (squishy, small sardines with organs hanging from odd places) actually appeal to anything must mean the situation can be pretty desperate out in the open sea. The terns probably would not know this; even in the brunt of the crisis their meals were upgraded to calamari, while most of the other birds saw their rations reduced or replaced with mullet, a smelly, gutsy fish with extra fins and a tough backbone. That fish entered the kitchen with about as much grace as an unwanted hairstyle trend, and no one missed it when it left.

It doesn’t surprise me, though, that the terns avoided most of the trouble. When you work with them you can sort of see they’re birds with standards, and they were hands down my favorite birds at the center. Balls of fluffy cuteness as chicks, beautiful as adults and juveniles with a gentle bite, perhaps what I loved most of all about these lovely birds is their squeaky chirps, which register at the same pitch as a dog’s chew toy.

As the last wave of the shortage was being ridden out, the terns were served tiny, whole fish instead of fillets. Some birds gobbled it up; others glared at the plate before commencing what seemed to be a vehement discussion in squeaks. It was like watching a board meeting spoken in rusty tricycle. I cannot but smile when I see that bird.


Swift terns weren’t the only birds with “unique dietary needs.” As its name suggests, the juvenile oyster-catcher was always fed shellfish instead of regular fish. When he first showed up as a sick, little bird, he barely ate two mussels. By the time he was cleared for release he ate thirty in one day. I’m not the vet, but I’d say he seemed better.


The Oystercatcher was quite a fun bird to work with. Difficult to catch, but once caught he went completely docile, so much so that a few times I thought he’d died. When it comes to being handled, most birds are far less accommodating, and they leave many a battle scar to prove it.