Innovative Use of Technology in New Penguin Habitats Earns Cincinnati Zoo’s Bird Team Top Honors

Posted March 17, 2021

New homes offer more space, more water, and more data

CINCINNATI, OH (March 17, 2021) – The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is excited to announce that its “Year of the Penguin” campaign has received the Plume Award for Significant Contribution to Zoo Aviculture from the Association of Zoo’s and Aquariums’ Avian Scientific Advisory Group (ASAG).  This award, which recognizes an institution’s exceptional achievement in aviculture, credits Cincinnati Zoo’s bird team for successfully opening two world-class penguin habitats in the summer of 2020 (during a global pandemic)!

        “One of the more exciting projects associated with these penguin habitats is the ongoing research using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, which was incorporated into pool and beach areas in both African Penguin Point and the Little Blue Penguin habitats,” said Cincinnati Zoo bird team curator Jenny Gainer. “The 24/7 tracking system, which was pioneered by our very own head keeper Rickey Kinley many years ago, will allow us to collect real-time data about individual bird behavior, trends for the colonies, and more!”

The data will help the bird team predict pairings based on individuals’ proximity over time and can also be used to modify areas of the habitats that penguins aren’t choosing to use.  RFID data collected during the last decade, by Kinley and Tracks Technology CEO Dr. Kathryn Kalafut, helped inform the design of the two new habitats.

“We set out to answer questions like ‘When and where are they swimming?,’  ‘Who do they hang out with?,’  ‘What temperature does the water need to be?,’ to help us help them swim more,” said Kinley.  “During our preliminary research, we discovered that they swam more when the water was warmer. This information was instrumental to the decision to add the heated water feature to both habitats.”

Database-driven decision making regarding the welfare and care of animals is the path forward, and Cincinnati Zoo is leading the way with this custom-designed data-collection system. It is the first of its kind in the world. The Zoo plans to share what it has learned with other Zoos and schools and to get the public about this kind of research.

“We envision using RFID to trigger a big splash or display the name of individual penguins they swim by a sensor,” said Kinley.  “That kind of interactive element will certainly grab the visitor’s attention and lead to more interest in what we’re trying to do.”

In addition to incorporating RFID technology, both new penguin habitats are innovative and set a new standard for penguin habitats in the future. Both spaces provide enough room for the colonies to grow up to 50% more, promote a myriad of natural behaviors, and offer better guest perspectives with underwater and beach viewing. Both habitats are full of enrichment opportunities including fans (also a great deterrent of mosquitos), misters, sprinklers, wave generators (100% controlled by keepers), multiple substrates on land, and underwater tunnels and attachment points for enrichment devices.

All of this, along with sustainability features and close penguin encounter opportunities, was considered by ASAG when making their Plume Award recipient selections.

Visitors can visit Roo Valley and African Penguin Point to see why Cincinnati Zoo flew away with the prestigious prize!  The Zoo is open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily.  Early Entry, starting at 9 a.m., is available for Zoo members.  Memberships are on sale now!