Hamburg: The two penguins looked across the fence from their enclosure to where the rest of the 20-odd penguins were. The taller one had eruptions around his neck, a classic symptom of moulting. The other, too, was in the process of shedding his feathers. As a result, the two had been boxed in to this separate part of the penguin arena, away from the water until their new feathers grew out.
The taller stretched his wings in what could easily have been mistaken for an embrace of his fellow penguin on his side of the fence. Or perhaps that was just an anthropomorphic tendency to read too much romantic feeling into an avian situation where there was none.
The two king penguins had after all arrived just a month and a half ago from Berlin Zoo, where both had refused to mate with the females in the conservation programme and instead coupled up with each other, according to zoo officials. “They’re gay, as far as we know,” Christiane Reiss, the Berlin Zoo spokeswoman, had said at the time. “They never procreated. And when it came to mating, they only mated with each other.”
The headlines frothed with excitement over news of the pair’s move to the all-male sanctuary for king penguins at the Tierpark Hagenbeck in Hamburg. ‘Two male penguins who only have eyes for each other are in a new home where they can be true to themselves’ announced The Huffington Post, as if it was covering Stonewall in the animal kingdom. ABC News went with ‘Berlin Zoo moves gay penguin couple to new home so they can settle down together’, framing the move as a flight toward domestic bliss.
Arriving on April 10 in a special van by road from Berlin, one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities, they took a few days to adjust at first: to the new surroundings, the new faces, their lowly status in the social hierarchy. Zoo officials named them Kalle and Grobi – chosen for no particular reason, one of the keepers clarified. Hamburg officials had only known them as ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ when they arrived.
As journalists have since scrambled to interview zoo officials, one thing has become clear: perhaps they aren’t gay after all.
In Berlin, the two had allegedly shown interest only in each other and even tried to steal eggs from another couple in order to rear the chick together. But there have been no signs of any of that old love here. “They have not been showing any behaviour that a normal couple would,” said David Wittmann, one of the keepers of the birds. In the animal world, that includes mating with each other or trying to foster a chick together.
And despite being in the same enclosure, they seem to have lost interest in each other, and nor have they shown any interest in any of the other six male king penguins who are already housed at the zoo. “We were also wondering,” said Wittmann. “They haven’t been showing any homosexual behaviour here,” adding that that might have included “staying together all the time” or “making love to each other”.
The zoo also happens to have another gay penguin couple, two Humboldt penguins. This sub-species is shorter, weighs less and doesn’t sport the distinctive yellow patch that the king penguins have. Wittmann said the Humboldt pair “has been together for some years” but “I don’t know how long”. Officials give them an egg every mating season “if there are enough eggs” so the two can raise the chick as their own.
Homosexual behaviour has previously been well documented in penguins. A zoo in New York had a gay penguin couple – Roy and Silo – who had been together for six years. In September 2005, the New York Times reported that they were no longer together, with Silo moving on to a female called Scrappy. Frans de Waal, an expert on the mutable sexuality of bonobo apes, had said in the piece that “exclusive homosexuality is not very common in nature”. And that “bisexual” would be a more appropriate term.
Similarly, for a while a male-male penguin pair at a zoo in Toronto was believed to have been a gay couple until they moved on later to mating with females.
As far as penguins are concerned, studies have shown that they might display bonding behaviours with another bird of the same sex – before moving on to be the same way around birds of the opposite sex. In one 2010 study published in the journal Ethology, for instance, researchers tracked 53 “displaying pairs” in the wild, finding 28.3% to have shown same-sex courtship displays. In two “extraordinary cases”, the authors wrote, the pairs learned each other’s calls, “an essential step in the pairing process”. However, they also said that long-lasting same-sex associations were “likely extremely rare at best”.
But what led the birds to conduct initial same-sex courtship when they did in the first place? “A population sex-ratio bias in favour of males and high concentration of male sex hormones may help to explain non-reproductive homosexually displaying pairs,” said the paper. The evidence then appears to suggest that penguin species can and do show same-sex pairing behaviours, but may move on to courting the opposite sex later.
None of this, however, will make much difference to Hamburg’s zoo authorities or the zoo-going public. The new penguins have been absorbed into the pen with nothing to suggest anything special. Eveline Duestersiek, the head of public relations, said the zoo had not seen a particular increase in visitor traffic since the news of the penguin couple being shifted from Berlin had been written about. It was just a case of increased interest from the media.