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Beguiling oddities: routine among Pittsburgh’s avian dinosaurs

Made or posted on May 5, 2020

Two smallish African penguins were confirming their partnership in 2011 when we walked through the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. One bird lay tummy-down on their bare nest of pebbles; the other waddled away to fetch more pebbles.

Both had male names, we noticed, but we didn’t know that Pedro & Buddy were to be relocated to the Toronto Zoo the very next month. We had only an inkling that the birds were early adopters of a queer-penguin lifestyle that would be headlined ’round the world. (See a partial list of the trendmakers below.)

African Penguins
Pedro & Buddy met in Pittsburgh, were torn asunder in Toronto.

Though Pedro & Buddy’s couplehood may still raise some human eyebrows, the pair looks tamely domestic compared with many of the other insanely flamboyant boarders in the birdhouse. After all, many zoologists now regard birds as “avian dinosaurs,” descended from a notably rowdy crew.

The Pittsburgh aviary — originally a local nonprofit that won congressional recognition in 1973 as “the National Aviary in Pittsburgh” — is a good place to observe the bird family’s high quirkiness quotient. It boasts the country’s largest collection of living birds, with 500 representing 150 species. In comparison, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in D.C. has fewer than 100 bird species.

For example, visitors can inspect a magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagle at very close range but safely confined behind a slab of glass. This salmon-eater of the northern Pacific is nearly twice the size of the Bald Eagle.

In its hallway cage, a Laughing Kookaburra (above) whoops like a maniac. I know from experience that human visitors who dare to whoop competitively will soon fall behind and risk passing out.

What can a Keel-Billed Toucan do with that immense beak (below)? Answers: Peel fruit. Grab insects. Intimidate potential enemies by banging it on trees. And control its body temperature by releasing surplus heat through the beak’s extensive surface area.

Another familiar parrot species, the African Grey (above), has been studied at length by my hero, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, as a peerless conversationalist whose mouth can outrun any parakeet’s.

Pelicans compete for fish in the spray of man-made surf.

In the big wet room with bleachers for the people, pelicans (above) jostle in the spray of man-made surf. Nearby, a hen-like Wattled Curassow (below) struts among visitors, giving them a very beady eye.

And a yellow-tailed specimen that I couldn’t readily identify darts nervously from perch to perch.

In contrast, Rainbow Lorikeets (below) radiate confidence with their primary-colored plumage and a knack for bending cage wires that supposedly confine them.

As visitors finish the round, the world’s largest pigeon, the Victoria Crowned (below), patrols the aviary floor, where it maintains a pervy obsession with a birdkeeper’s black rubber galoshes.

There are more birdies to come. The Pittsburgh aviary is adding 9,000 square feet to its facility this year. (Meanwhile in D.C., the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is converting its enormous flight cage into an exhibit called Experience Migration, to open in 2021. Its birds are on hiatus for the time being.)

‘Gay’ penguin couples
turn up everywhere

Pedro & Buddy, the couple we noticed in Pittsburgh, helped accelerate a gay-penguin craze that overcame newspaper feature writers ’round the world. The couples haven’t always hatched an egg, but “gay penguins” certainly became a thing in the media. Recent examples:

Central Park Zoo, New York City, 1998: Two 10-year-old Chinstrap penguins, Silo & Roy, hatch and raise a chick, prompting both public celebration and complaint. For 1999, they incubate a rock but it fails to hatch. In 2000, they hatch another chick — an event chronicled in the children’s book And Tango Makes Three. Nevertheless, in 2004, Silo leaves Roy for a female named Scrappy.

San Francisco Zoo, 2003: Two male Magellanic penguins, Harry & Pepper, begin a six-year nesting partnership. They hatch an abandoned egg in 2008, but in 2009 Harry takes up with the widow Linda. Pepper, bereft, gets violent and is removed from the enclosure. His fans defame Linda as a conniving homewrecker.

Toronto Zoo, 2011: Pedro & Buddy ship in from the aviary in Pittsburgh, but Toronto zookeepers split them up, citing a need to preserve the endangered African species.

Wingham Wildlife Park in Kent, U.K., 2014: Jumbs & Kermit adopt a chick hatched by a divorced couple.

Odense Zoo, Denmark, 2018: A same-sex couple of Humboldt penguins briefly kidnaps a chick to raise, igniting a loud fight with its parents. All have long, pointed beaks. Management gives the thwarted couple a spare egg to hatch.

Sea Life aquarium, Sydney, Australia, 2018: Gentoo penguins Sphen & Magic pair up and hatch a foster egg.

Zoo Berlin, 2019: Zookeepers, impressed that the male couple of King penguins, Skipper & Ping, had tried earlier to hatch a stone, lets them adopt an egg from a quarrelsome mixed-sex couple. Unfortunately, the egg turns out to be unfertilized.

Sea Life aquarium, London, 2019: Two female Gentoo penguins, Rocky and Marama, adopt and raise a chick. Management says a number of hatchlings go on to live as neither male nor female, but this chick is the aquarium’s first to be tagged purple as officially “genderless.”

London Zoo, 2019: The zoo counts three same-sex couples among its 93 Humboldt penguins, including Nadja & Zimmer, Dev & Martin, and Ronnie & Reggie, still snuggling since 2014. For a London gay-pride celebration, the zoo hung a banner declaring: “Some penguins are gay. Get over it.”

Photo: Zoological Society of London.

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