We've known for a long time that African penguins speak their own language, and recent studies have shown that that language is even more complicated than previously thought! But, it's actually quite easy for a human to learn how to understand them (although if you try to make their vocalisations, you'll just get an odd look). Here's some basic penguin vocabulary for you.
Here are some common phrases:
“Where are you!? I’m over here!”
This short call is one you’ll hear often on our sandy beach. Called a “contact call”, it is made by African penguin adults and juveniles who are either trying to find the colony after being separated or trying to help other penguins find their way back.
“Shoo, this is my nest!”
Sometimes an African penguin just wants some personal space – when this happens they will utter a short growl to let another penguin know it needs to back off. This is called an “agonistic call” and luckily we don’t hear them too often!
“Honey, I’m home!”
When an African penguin returns to their mate after some time away, hunting or gathering nesting materials, they will greet each other with a “mutual display song”. Often, while doing this, the mates will bow, pointing their beaks towards their nest or towards their partner’s feet. This song is one of the ways that African penguins recognise their mates, an important skill for birds that mate for life.
“Look at me! I’m majestic!”
Sometimes having the biggest nest on the beach isn’t enough for a single penguin to be able to attract a mate. When this happens they will resort to spreading their wings, raising their beaks high and singing with their best singing voices, with the hopes of attracting a partner. African penguins are not songbirds, in fact, this “ecstatic display song” is the reason they were once called “jackass penguins” … sounding as they do like braying donkeys.
“Mom, bring me food!”
Just like humans, adolescent penguins still rely on their parents to bring them food. Juvenile African penguins, between three and 12 months old, will let out a “begging moan” to encourage their parents to feed them.
“Mom, I’m hungry!”
When hungry, penguin chicks will call to their parents for attention using a high-pitched peep. Known as a "begging peep", this call is very short but is repeated by chicks in long sequences lasting for several minutes until they are fed.
This research was carried out by our fellow aquarists at Zoom Torino and the University of Torino in Italy. Feel free to read the full article if you want to learn more about these fascinating creatures - "The Vocal Repertoire of the African Penguin". Do the Italian penguins have accents, you ask? We don’t think so – but recent studies have shown that they can "chatter" and transfer information in ways similar to human language.
Follow the March of the penguin:
If you missed the QR code tour during your Two Oceans Aquarium visit and would like to catch up on the extra penguin information that was shared, you can do so here:
- What do penguins eat?
- African penguin colonies
- Microscopic threats to penguins: Parasites
- The bioaccumulation problem
- How to speak the penguin language
- How do we prepare food for the penguins?
- Penguins of Marion Island: The "other" African penguins
- Why do rockhopper penguins have crests?
- Biodiversity and penguins
- Penguins are predators too: How penguins hunt