It's shaping up to be a big week in Penguins' Rock at the Tennessee Aquarium.
Already, all of the resident gentoo and macaroni penguins have been rounded up for their semi-annual physical examinations.
While they visited the staff veterinarian behind the scenes, other staff members gave the penguins' chilly habitat a thorough spring cleaning, says spokesman Thom Benson. Workers drained the penguin pool and pressure-washed the entire space and performed preventive maintenance on the exhibit's wave machine.
Next, several hundred pounds of "magic rocks" will be brought out for the birds on Friday, April 1. And that will trigger nest-building, signaling the start of nesting season for the penguins.
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, Benson says.
Each spring, Aquarium aviculturists provide nesting rocks to the penguins, and an immediate swarm of activity ensues. Like any other romance, sometimes there's a little drama.
"While certain penguin species have long-term mates, it's not always the case," says 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. Nipper, a gentoo, 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," says 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, Benson says. 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 a month behind, with their first eggs showing up in early June.
Penguin viewing is included in regular admission at the Tennessee Aquarium, 1 Broad St. Cost is $29.95 for adults, $18.95 for children 3-12. For more information, visit www.tnaqua.org or call 1-800-262-0695.