Experts at the Tennessee Aquarium are preparing for the start of the 2016 nesting season at Penguins’ Rock. This process will begin on March 30 with a bit of a rodeo. At a waddle’s pace, all of the Gentoo and Macaronis will be rounded up for a trip behind the scenes to visit the Aquarium’s veterinarian. While all of the birds are getting their semi-annual physical examinations, other staff members will give the chilly habitat a thorough spring cleaning. They will drain the penguin pool and pressure wash the entire exhibit while also performing preventative maintenance on the exhibit’s wave machine.
On April 1, several hundred pounds of “magic rocks” will be brought out for the birds. This triggers the somewhat frenzied nest-building activities that usually lasts until the first eggs start appearing about one month later.
Even though experts have discredited the myth that male penguins “propose” to females with a single pebble, both Gentoo and Macaroni penguins build rock nests. The process is an important part of courtship and bonding. Each spring, Aquarium aviculturists provide nesting rocks to the penguins and an immediate swarm of activity ensues.
Nesting season is always a fun time to visit the Aquarium to observe some of the most peculiar penguin behaviors seen throughout the year. And, just like any other romance, sometimes there’s a little drama. “While certain penguin species have long-term mates, it’s not always the case,” said Tennessee Aquarium senior aviculturist Loribeth Lee. “For example, while Hercules has nested with Shamrock in the past, last year he raised a chick with Little Debbie.”
Nest building is serious business and penguin pairs work meticulously to get it just right – sometimes resorting to some sneaky antics. Gentoo Penguin Nipper is not the only penguin who seems to find pleasure in plucking pebbles from another unsuspecting couple’s nest. “Rock stealing is fairly common in penguin colonies,” said Ms. Lee. “Researchers have even studied how many times rocks have been stolen and passed from nest to nest. Here at the Aquarium you’ll frequently see Gentoos and Macaronis snatching rocks from another nest.”
Of course, the most exciting part of nesting season is hoping for the pitter patter of baby penguin feet later this summer. Last year’s season brought a new Macaroni and three baby Gentoos – one of which was the Aquarium’s first penguin chick to be raised by foster parents.
Keepers go on watch as soon as nesting begins, looking for eggs and eventually chicks. The first Macaroni eggs usually start showing up in early May. The Gentoos typically lag about one month behind with their first eggs showing up in early June. “Every nesting season is different and fun,” said Ms. Lee. “It’s hard to tell who enjoys watching it unfold the most…Aquarium staff and volunteers or our guests.”