Feb 14

Romance in the Rookery

With their dashing black and white “attire,” penguins always look like they’re puttin’ on the Ritz. And, while their webbed feet keep them from being Fred Astaire, these birds do have some pretty romantic moves when it comes to courting their beloveds.

“During their breeding season, which starts in October, the keepers put various-sized rocks in their rookery,” explains Beverly Hinrichs, stewardship coordinator at the Omaha Zoo Foundation. Since Hinrichs spent five years as a penguin/aquarium birds keeper prior to joining the Foundation staff, she had a front row seat for what happens next.

“The male gentoos go over and they get a rock – they’re very particular about picking just the right one. Then they bring it over to one of the females and drop it and bow to her. If she likes it, she bows back.”

The gentoos use the rocks for building the nests in which they lay their eggs. In the wild, the males generally return to the same nesting grounds each year, and their female mates will try to find them there, which is why penguins are said to mate for life.

“We have few rockhopper pairs at the zoo that are pretty well-established couples,” Hinrichs says. “Some have been together for 20 years.”

The rockhoppers also engage in the rock ritual, but it’s not as theatrical as the gentoo version. Meanwhile, in lieu of exchanging rocks, king penguins trumpet to each other, then bow. As Hinrichs puts it, “Each species has a different way of saying ‘I love you.’”