Songs & Snuggles, Pebbles & Pursuit

Animal Courtship at Lincoln Park Zoo

The displays of courtship and methods of breeding at Lincoln Park Zoo are as diverse as the animals exhibiting them. From snuggling snakes to valiant vultures, we explore some of the more interesting elements of courtship witnessed at the zoo in recent months, some of which—such as the red wolves—resulting in offspring.

Primate Love Songs
Few courting creatures are as harmonious as the white-cheeked gibbons.
Each morning the adult male and female each sing in harmony. The male begins with the repetition of a single note that sounds almost like a bird’s chirp, then the female chimes in with warbling flourishes.

Now, what they’re actually doing is marking their territory to warn others to keep their distance. But Curator Maureen Leahy believes it also reinforces the couple’s bond. And to those zoo employees and visitors lucky enough to hear it each morning, it’s awfully romantic.

Two Red Pandas, For The Time Being…
Many visitors to Lincoln Park Zoo consider the red pandas the cutest things they’ve ever seen. Well…they’ve never seen red panda cubs. Nor have staff members at the Kovler Lion House, who in October paired a young female with the resident male in the hopes that they breed.

Thus far, Zoological Manager of Large Mammals Mark Kamhout hasn’t witnessed much courtship behavior—a little scent-marking is the only indicator of interest from either of them. But the female has been following the male around their indoor and outdoor exhibits, which they access day and night. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” says Kamhout. “Just because we haven’t seen anything doesn’t mean nothing is going on.”

Snuggles & Venom
The male will follow the female around their exhibit like a puppy dog. He might snuggle up next to her and fall asleep or even massage her back. Of course, these are Aruba Island rattlesnakes we’re talking about, equipped with sharp fangs loaded with venom, and those back rubs are performed with the male’s chin. But it’s sweet behavior, even if poisonous.

These two rattlesnakes were introduced at Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House in December, with a breeding recommendation from the Species Survival Plan. Staff haven’t yet witnessed the male coiling his tail around the female in a breeding embrace, but those snuggle sessions and rubdowns are encouraging.

Scavengers & Romantics
If you were to list adorable species, vultures would rank at the bottom alongside dung beetles and leeches. But each winter, the cinereous vultures within the Regenstein Birds of Prey exhibit begin a courtship behavior that puts other, cuter animals to shame.

The male starts collecting sticks, which he presents to the female. Both pitch in to build a nest in which an egg is deposited, sometime near the end of March. Now, one gnarly bird presenting a craggy, frozen stick to another isn’t what most of us consider romance, but these are vultures after all. When dinner is rats and rib bones, Hallmark cards don’t cut it.

And with the hatching of a cinereous vulture chick in May 2010, it seems as if this odd courtship worked.

Lives Entwined
Sometimes it’s just the male and female titi monkey, perched high on a branch within the Brach Primate House, nuzzling close to one another with their long, furry tails hanging below them, entwined like a thick braid of hair. In this mass of fluff resting on the branch, it can be hard to decipher where one little monkey ends and the other begins. It’s even harder to determine which tail is which.

Guests find this behavior—which soothes the animals and reinforces social bonds—awfully romantic. Throughout the day there are sighs when young couples spot the titi monkeys wrapped up like this.

And there are nods of sympathy when parents strolling through the Primate House spot the titi monkey offspring joining in the huddle, having nudged their way into the loving embrace, their tails entwined with mom’s and dad’s.

Gorilla Eyes
In December, female gorilla Rollie was transferred from JoJo’s group to Kwan’s.

The two hit it off immediately. She began displaying what is known to scientists as quadrupedal posturing—body language that often indicates sexual interest. She also began displaying what is known to everybody as “flirty eyes”—quick, come-hither glances at the big guy. For his part, Kwan began gently touching his new mate and casting his own flirty eyes.

The two soon began purring at each other, following by mountings and copulation. In short, the flirting worked.

White Snow, Red Wolves
As snow blanketed Chicago, the red wolves at the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo were in the middle of their breeding season, which continues through February. And while the female was displaying courtship behaviors—licking and nuzzling the male’s face, bowing to him—Lincoln Park Zoo staff members had not actually seen them breed.

But by March, she’d begun displaying signs of pregnancy—weight gain, loss of hair on her belly.

Considering that this pair had produced two litters in recent years (many of the pups have been released to the wild in South Carolina), keepers correctly suspected that the wolves had been breeding at night, when the zoo is quiet save for their howls, which increase in frequency this time of year along with the courtship.

And on April 17, the female delivered a litter of six puppies—small, dark fur balls that didn’t open their eyes for a few weeks, but delighted Chicagoans who celebrated their arrival on the local news.

Noisy Courtship
Take a couple of wooden blocks and slam them together a few dozen times—CLACK! CLACK! CLACK! CLACK! CLACK! 

It’s not the most pleasant thing to hear, but for the European white storks, that’s the sound of courtship. Each winter, these graceful creatures at the Regenstein Birds of Prey exhibit begin courting, performing a “dance” in which they crane their long necks backwards, align their shoulders, and begin clacking their big, orange beaks.

Around the world, European storks are known as the harbingers of spring, since they are among the first birds to begin courting and nesting each year. The pair here at Lincoln Park Zoo has already begun, which makes that CLACK! sound downright heartwarming to frozen Chicagoans.

Cold Stones, Heartwarming Behavior
It’s kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit within the Blum-Kovler Penguin-Seabird House, but the rockhopper penguin males start behaving warmly each spring. This is courtship season for penguins, when females begin building nests and males begin building bonds with those females by presenting them rocks.

The black-and-white suitors select pebbles to offer their potential mates in the hopes that their gathering prowess will impress females enough to accept them as mates.

Keepers present the penguins stones every April for this purpose. But since all is fair in love and war, males will steal prized pebbles from one bird’s nest to present to another female.

Taking It Slow
In early February, a female Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth was introduced to the resident male at Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House. He was excited, pursuing her around the exhibit all day. She wasn’t as thrilled, shuffling away from her suitor and—when he came too close—baring her teeth at him. 

They both mellowed in the subsequent days. (They are sloths, after all.)
As this pair has a breeding recommendation—staff members hope that their introduction results in a young sloth at some point.

But like sloth courtship, sloth breeding and sloth gestation (which can be as long as 10 months), this is a long, slow process.