Humboldt penguins belong to the family of temperate penguins grouped under the Spheniscus classification. This means wedge shaped and refers to the distinctive banded colouration which is common to the four species in the genus (the others are the African, the Magellanic and the Galapagos). Humboldt penguins are to be found only on the Pacific (western) coast of Chile and Peru nesting on rocky shores or islands. They form their nests in burrows in small colonies often burrowing in guano which is found in abundance in the region. Their name is taken from the cold water current (The Humboldt Current) which sweeps up the Pacific coasts of South America carrying with it an abundance of food.
They are similar in size to their closest relatives, the Magellanic Penguins, at approximately 27 inches in height and can be distinguished by the fact that the white band around their heads is continuous with that on their breast. Humboldt penguins are relatively rare now as numbers have declined alarmingly over the last 50 years or so. In the early 1960s, the population was estimated at around 50,000 breeding pairs in the wild (various sources appear to suggest that this number was 5 million but I suspect that this is an error). The population now is probably less than 5000 and the species is officially classified as endangered. The reason for this decline is twofold. Firstly, the effects of the El Nino current which have warmed the Humboldt current. Fish and zooplankton are far more abundant in colder waters and this has had an effect on the natural food sources for these penguins. Secondly, Humboldt penguins often nest in wild bird guano (droppings) which in places can be as much as 100 feet thick. Guano is farmed in Peru as a fetiliser and this has, to an extent, destroyed the nesting grounds of the Humboldts.
Maybe as many as 1000 individuals are in captivity in zoos around the world and efforts are being made to reverse the decline in the wild populations. There was an interesting story in June 2009 about a pair of male Humboldt penguins in a zoo in Germany who were given an egg discarded by its biological parents. These 'gay' parents successfully reared a chick. The zoo claims to have observed other gay penguin pairs who attempt to mate and then hope to incubate chicks from stones. Humboldt penguins are timid birds and it is difficult to photograph them in their natural habitat. These pictures were taken in the Islas Ballestas in Peru, a group of rocky islands off the coast of Peru with abundant sea bird and sealion populations.