Tennessee Aquarium penguins go gaga for nesting rocks

Gallery: Tennessee Aquarium penguins go gaga for nesting rocks

Love is in the air at the Tennessee Aquarium and it’s causing mayhem.

It’s penguin nesting season.

Every year, the first week of April is an exciting time for the macaroni and gentoo penguins that share an exhibit at Chattanooga’s downtown aquarium. Instincts start to kick in as the summer approaches, but the official green light comes when workers dump a load of rocks into the exhibit so the birds can build their nests.

But at least for the first couple of days, that isn’t an orderly process. The birds jockey with one another for the best spots in the exhibit and fight over rocks, even stealing them away from one another’s nests.

“There’s a lot of drama going on,” said Loribeth Lee, an aviculturist who looks over the penguins. “The best-looking rock is the one someone else has.”

For some of the penguins this year there is even more drama than the usual nest-claiming and rock-stealing.

“Iggie can’t decide between these two females,” she said while pointing to a tubby, macaroni penguin lounging against the back wall of the exhibit. “He really likes Shamrock, but Noodle is an option, too.”

The downtown aquarium is home to 26 penguins in total, 15 gentoo and 11 macaroni, but only 19 of those birds are old enough to breed. The odd number means one of the females is going to be left without a mate.

Lee said, “Noodle has been the odd one out every year, so we’re kind of rooting for her.”

Over the next few weeks, aquarium workers will haul nearly 500 pounds of rocks into the exhibit for the inhabitants to work with and, hopefully, the result will be a fresh batch of eggs and some new chicks. The aquarium has had 18 chicks hatch since 2009, just a handful every year, and workers hope to see another few join the group in the coming months.

It remains to be seen what kind of chicks may hatch this year, but workers hope to see an extra macaroni or two, preferably male, to balance the demographics of the exhibit. New chicks have been predominantly female gentoos over the past few years. But Lee and her coworkers will be happy to see chicks regardless.

And for now, the penguins that are already there are a sight to see, especially this week as families and visitors swarm to the aquarium on their spring break to watch the birds build their temporary nests.

“Whoa, that one just stole a rock,” 9-year-old Abigail Smith shouted to her mom with her hands on the glass.

“That’s mean, but he’s cute.”

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

Tennessee Aquarium penguins go gaga for nesting rocks

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