Saturday, October 14, 2006

What's Bad for Me is Good for Him

When you work with penguins there are certain things you learn. One is no matter where you are in the penguin display, you are in their way. It doesn't matter if you are bigger than them. It doesn't matter if you're human and they're birds. The display is their territory and their home and you are in the way even if you are standing on one side of the display and they are standing on the other.

Another thing is that most penguin behavior is done for a good reason, no matter how random or contradictory it seems.

Last Saturday, I was in the display on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor when I someone came up behind me and bit me in the butt (ouch!). I turned around and it was my old friend, Pierre the Alpha Male. Head lowered, eyes blazing, he was ready for a fight. I stood up slowly and backed up a little. I talked to him quietly ("Hey, Mister, what're you all pissed off about?"). He continued to advance towards me ready to bite me again with his sharp beak.

This was a little unusual. He almost never comes after me like that. When we first moved the penguins into this space and Pierre was running around kicking penguin and people ass left and right, he was letting me pet him on his chest. Sometimes he takes pot shots at me with his beak as I'm walking by his nestbox or when I try to pet him and he's not in the mood, but that's about it.

Since this was unusual, I paused and looked around. This is always the best thing to do when something different is going on in the penguin display. I noticed I was scrubbing close to Homey's rock. Homey, recently widowed, had taken to hanging out on the rock next to Pierre's nestbox. As both of them are at present mateless, we have been hoping they would couple up. Homey herself was taking a dip in the pool. I kept looking around. I was close to Homey's rock, but that's too far from Pierre's own nestbox to prompt this kind of behavior. Sure enough, the explanation became very clear for Homey climbed out the of the water and went to the other side of the penguin display. Pierre abandoned his challenge for a fight and ran up to her. They proceeded to do a little necking (mutual preening is the penguin equivalent of making out).

Pierre the Alpha Male. Pissed off, Defensive, Romantic.

This is good. In fact, it's good that Pierre came back later and tried to beat me up again. Why? Because he and Homey are finally taking positive steps to pair up and this includes Pierre defending both his and her territory. I'm hoping that by the time I go back to the Aquarium later this morning, she will have moved into his house. I watched them after I did the morning feed and observed Pierre indulging in the devoted mate behavior he is so good at (following her around, preening her head, calling to her and defending her space/honor).

During the afternoon feed, Pierre begged and pleaded to be fed on land. The penguins usually feed in the water unless they're molting, sitting on an egg or raising chicks. Or if they are at the top of the pecking order and looking all adorable with those wide eyes. I consented by giving him a big fat herring. Our relationship seemed to be back to normal. He must have forgiven me because when I left the display and did my usual call, he answered back.


anne said...

MT, I went to the zoo this afternoon with my kids (8 year old daughter, 4 year old son). One of our unexpected activities was that we got to see our first penguin feeding, and I thought of you!

The enclosure is small and outdoors, and seven birds were waiting patiently for dinner about 4pm. When the volunteer (??) appeared, wearing knee-high rubber boots and white gloves, and carrying a silver bucket, six of the seven penguins marched right over to him for food. The seventh one dove into the water, swam a bit, and then climbed back out to the shore, where he/she hung out in the cave, watching. While the other six munched on the small fish the feeder was handing out, a visitor asked why the seventh penguin was not eating. The boot-clad man told us that the left-out bird is a baby, and he is still fed by his parents.

Then my daughter and I got into a discussion of what "regurgitation" means, and she explained that wolf puppies are fed the same way by their parents.

Later, we saw two very large pelicans grooming their feathers with their impossibly-long beaks. "It's called "preening", Mom, and they do it to keep their feathers waterproof", my well-read daughter told me.

It was an educational day at the zoo!

My four-year-old son really enjoyed the waterfowl feeding and the carousel ride we took to make up for the fact we were too late to ride the train. His little face just lights up when he is excited, or when he is experiencing something new. Days like today make me glad I became a parent - I had no idea the types of feeling I could have for two small people!

Mock Turtle said...

This is a wonderful comment. Thank you so much for sharing.

I am so flattered that you thought of me during the penguin feed! I can't tell you how warm and fuzzy that makes me feel.

Your kids sound great! Never forget how lucky you are to have them. You could be like me, 40 years old, no prospects on the horizon and little chance of having children of my own.

Thanks again for this comment.