Day 23: On Christmas Day, the tired person cannot rest. (Or The Penguin Feeding Guy.)

Until African penguins start observing federal holidays, neither will Sparks Perkins.

That means the morning of December 25 will bring not gifts and mistletoe for the 33-year-old San Franciscan, but beak and gut decorations.

As a biologist at the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium, Mr. Perkins belongs to that steadfast group — hospital workers, firefighters, guards — who take a break from non-holiday work. Call him an essential poultry worker, tied to the needs of about 50 resident birds. Weekend, Late Night: All fair game for any emergencies that arise among Mr. Perkins’s pack.

“I worked six out of 10 last Christmases,” he said. “That’s just the price to pay for working with these animals.”

Mr. Perkins describes the job as stepping into a daily soap opera. One bird wakes up cranky, the other sassy. Key stolen from belt. The penguin’s famous monogamy will relax a bit.

“Some have wandering eyes. They’ll wander around for a bit and come right back,” Mr. Perkins said.

Sometimes, they change teams completely. Some time ago, a pair of male Magellanic penguins from Brazil unexpectedly mated.

“Those boys made the most amazing home,” Mr. Perkins recalls. “I remember them being the best interior designers.”

A native of Mississippi, Mr. Perkins has been in love with birds since he was 3 years old, when his parents gave him his first macaw. Parakeets, lovebirds and pigeons followed. Some nights, he had to go to the post office at 4 a.m. to receive a pheasant cart that he had ordered.

“I am a very different 14-year-old boy,” he say. “Instead of playing football after school, I would go to the aviaries that I built. I have about 70 birds.”

The Academy’s own collection has grown recently, with the arrival of two newly hatched African penguins. Given the organization’s role in conserving endangered species — Mr. Perkins has just returned from a conservation project in South Africa — helping these birds thrive is paramount. Every morning, Mr. Perkins lifts each chick out of its nesting box, places them on a small scale, and records a lovely number of grams. Weight gain during the holidays is encouraged here.

Penguins possess a quiet dignity if teething. Penguin chicks do not have. They are chubby orbs full of fluff, incompetent, can’t even be trusted in water. Until that part of the fluff is replaced by young fur, they will sink like sweet little stones. But in captivity, they can live for about 30 years, twice their lifespan in the wild. They really need stimulation to keep them happy and healthy, and the biologists here have created laser pointers, blowing bubbles, and playing colony sounds through iPads.

Birds are also enriched by the sight of visitors surname. At the height of the pandemic, with no one on the other side of the glass, the staff did yoga for the animals.

This Christmas, Mr. Perkins and his colleagues will find little ways to make this day special, while the birds squawk as usual. They are not pigeons or partridges on a pear tree, but they are a family.


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