Until the African penguin starts observing federal holidays, neither will Sparks Perkins.
That means that on the morning of the 12th 25, the 33-year-old San Francisco does not bring gifts and mistletoe, but remains of beaks and fish intestines.
A biologist at the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium, Mr. Perkins is among that stalwart group — hospital staff, firefighters, point guards — whose work is never stopped for a vacation. Call him essential bird staff who attend to the needs of the 50 or so resident birds. Weekends, late nights: all fair game for any emergencies between Mr. Perkins’ flock.
“I’ve worked six Christmases out of the last ten,” he said. “That’s just the price of working with these animals.”
Mr. Perkins describes this work as entering a daily soap opera. This bird wakes up grumpy, that one cheeky. Keys are stolen from belts. This famous penguin monogamy is relaxing a little.
“Some have wandering eyes. They’ll go away for a little fling and then come right back,” said Mr. Perkins.
Occasionally they switch teams entirely. A while ago, a pair of male Magellanic penguins from Brazil bonded out of the blue.
“These boys built the most fabulous nest,” Mr. Perkins recalled. “I remember they were the best interior designers.”
A native of Mississippi, Mr. Perkins has loved birds since he was three years old when his parents gave him his first parakeet. Macaws, turtle doves and show pigeons followed. Some nights he had to drive to the post office at 4am to pick up a wagon of pheasants he had ordered.
“I was a completely different 14-year-old boy” he said. “Instead of playing soccer after school, I went to the aviaries I had built. I had about 70 birds.”
The Academy’s own collection recently grew with the arrival of two African penguin cubs. Given the institution’s role in conserving endangered species – Mr Perkins has just returned from a conservation project in South Africa – helping these birds to thrive was of paramount importance. Every morning Mr. Perkins lifts each chick from its nest box, places it on a tiny scale and records a delightful number of grams. Gaining weight over the holiday season is encouraged here.
Penguins possess a calm, if faltering, dignity. Penguin chicks don’t have any. They are chubby balls of fluff, unable to be trusted even in the water. Until these downs are replaced by juvenile plumage, they would sink like cute little stones. But in captivity, they can live to around 30 years, twice that of the wild. They need stimulation to stay happy and healthy, and the biologists here break out laser pointers, blow bubbles and play colony sounds on an iPad.
The birds are also enriched by the sight of the observing visitors you. At the height of the pandemic, when no one was on the other side of the glass, staff did yoga for the animals.
This Christmas, Mr. Perkins and his colleagues will be finding little ways to make the day special while the birds screech around as usual. They’re not lovebirds or partridges in a pear tree, but they’re family.