Why else would a penguin, native to chilly Patagonia roughly 2,000 miles away, keep returning to a warm stretch of sand in Rio de Janeiro state during mating season?
That’s the heart-breaking story of Jinjing, a Magellanic penguin and a retired bricklayer in a Brazilian fishing village.
João Pereira de Souza, a retired bricklayer, has shared his homestead and sardine supply for four years with the seabird.
The penguin disappears into the sea for days—sometimes months—only to return to the spot where Mr. de Souza raises chickens by the beach in this remote fishing village of 1,300 residents on the island of Ilha Grande.
During the bird’s visits, the two go for long walks on the beach, swim together in the surf and converse in pidgin penguinese.
“When he returns he’s so happy to see me,” Mr. de Souza says, “he comes up to my neck and hoots.”
Mr. de Souza, a 71-year-old widower, says the visits started March 20, 2011, when he discovered the bird oil-soaked, lying on the beach by his shanty.
He moved the ailing avian under his shade tree, force-fed it fish and took it to the water’s edge, expecting it to swim away.
“He took a drink of water and then came back onto the beach. So I gave him three more sardines and that was it: He never left me again,” Mr. de Souza says on a recent afternoon as Jinjing nibbles affectionately at his hand.
He looks down: “Isn’t that right, Jinjing?”
Jinjing’s name is a term of endearment in parts of Brazil, and the bird is a local favorite. “He’s the village mascot,” says Carlos Eduardo Arantes, the community administrator.
“It spends 10, 12, 15 days away and then comes back to the same house,” says Mário Castro, a fisherman who, like most Provetá residents, is well-versed in Jinjing’s story. “It’s an incredible thing, huh?”
The penguin typically leaves for longer in February, returning in June. Mr. de Souza says he guessed it was male and assumed it swam to Argentina to “line up a girlfriend” for Carnival.
Penguin experts say Jinjing’s heart probably desires more than the free fish from Mr. de Souza.
Magellanic penguins like Jinjing are known for migrating thousands of miles between Patagonia breeding colonies and feeding grounds farther north. They typically mate in September, lay eggs, then rear chicks between December and February.
“It’s all theoretical. I mean, who knows what goes on in the mind of a lone penguin,” says Dyan deNapoli, a veterinary nurse who used to take care of penguins at Boston’s New England Aquarium and has a website called The Penguin Lady.
Because Jinjing visits Mr. de Souza’s during breeding season, she says, “it’s possible that he has redirected his natural instinct to mate toward this guy.” The nibbling is “allopreening,” she says, a courtship behavior among certain birds.
Another hint at Jinjing’s designs on his caretaker: “He’s jealous for me,” Mr. de Souza says as the penguin eyes a visiting reporter with unambiguous suspicion. “He doesn’t let any dog or cat near me or else he goes after them and pecks.”
When a neighborhood dog approaches a few minutes later, Jinjing lunges, beak agape and flippers flaring. The pooch skedaddles. Protectiveness of mates is common as the birds drive off competitors, Ms. deNapoli says.
Mr. de Souza played hard-to-get shortly after Jinjing first arrived, putting it on a boat headed to a different beach. The captain tossed it overboard miles away.
Jinjing beat the boat back.
During visits, Jinjing stays outside in a special enclosure, otherwise following Mr. de Souza around much of the time.
The man addresses the bird in a high-pitched voice. He says the penguin’s call to him, an extended honk, sounds like his own first name: “Joaaaao!”
When Mr. de Souza strolls the beach with his feathered friend, they sometimes walk on the sand together, or Jinjing swims alongside.
Occasionally, Jinjing gets in the water and calls out to him, says Mr. de Souza’s daughter. When Mr. de Souza gets in for a swim, she says, Jinjing excitedly circles him.
Despite their reputation as cold-water animals, penguins aren’t unheard of in Brazil, where northbound currents occasionally deposit them, weak and hungry. Overfishing and climate change may be driving them farther into the tropics, some scientists say.
A team of Magellanic-penguin researchers at the University of Washington, reviewing Jinjing’s photo, say he looks like a young male and his behavior sounds consistent with male breeding patterns.
“If a female is not successful at laying eggs with one mate, she’ll leave him,” says Caroline Cappello, one of the researchers. “The males sort of just try to get any lady they can.”
Ms. Cappello says Jinjing’s behavior reminds her of a male Magellanic penguin near her team’s Argentina field site, which grew fond of the researchers more than a decade ago and hasn’t found a mate since.
“Every morning when we go down to get our gear out, he comes waddling out from his nest and says hi,” she says. “I don’t know what he thinks is going to happen.”
Jinjing has won celebrity through local television broadcasts. Fishermen give Mr. de Souza sardines when he goes to the nearest city for his social-security check.
Magellanic penguins live roughly 20 years on average, so the friendship may last a while.
Mr. de Souza’s daughter, Mery Alves de Souza, says he fusses so much over Jinjing that it is hard to persuade him to visit his real children in Rio de Janeiro, six hours away.
In June, he planned to stay in Rio a week but returned home after two days, fearing Jinjing wouldn’t get enough to eat. “We call him and tell him to come visit and he says, ‘OK, OK,’ ” she says. “But then he doesn’t.”
“It’s like a son to him.”