MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Their down feathers are nearly gone. They’re growing accustomed to their surroundings, not to mention humans. And they’ve started swimming lessons.

Four female African Penguin chicks are almost ready to make their public debut at the Minnesota Zoo.

“We expect they’ll be out in their habitat over the weekend,” Jamie Toste, the zoo’s curator of birds, said Thursday. “Next week, at the latest.”

The chicks hatched three to four months ago, and they’re just about ready to explore the 3M Penguins of the African Coast exhibit.

Recently, the penguins have shed their downy plumage and made their densely-packed feathers waterproof. They’ve also started to get a feel for life in the water.

African penguins, like many penguin species, are endangered. In the last 50 years, the population has plummeted by 80 percent.

“There are about 25,000 pairs left in the wild,” Toste said. “They’re actually in trouble.”

The species is endangered chiefly due to the overfishing of sardines, a staple of their diet in the waters off the southern tip of Africa.

The Minnesota Zoo participates in an African penguin breeding program with other zoos across the nation.

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