Phenological changes have been observed in a variety of systems over the past century. There is concern that, as a consequence, ecological interactions are becoming increasingly mismatched in time, with negative consequences for ecological function. Significant spatial heterogeneity (inter-site) and temporal variability (inter-annual) can make it difficult to separate intrinsic, extrinsic and stochastic drivers of phenological variability. The goal of this study was to understand the timing and variability in breeding phenology of Adélie penguins under fixed environmental conditions and to use those data to identify a "null model" appropriate for disentangling the sources of variation in wild populations. Data on clutch initiation were collected from both wild and captive populations of Adélie penguins. Clutch initiation in the captive population was modelled as a function of year, individual and age to better understand phenological patterns observed in the wild population. Captive populations displayed as much inter-annual variability in breeding phenology as wild populations, suggesting that variability in breeding phenology is the norm and thus may be an unreliable indicator of environmental forcing. The distribution of clutch initiation dates was found to be moderately asymmetric (right skewed) both in the wild and in captivity, consistent with the pattern expected under social facilitation. The role of stochasticity in phenological processes has heretofore been largely ignored. However, these results suggest that inter-annual variability in breeding phenology can arise independent of any environmental or demographic drivers and that synchronous breeding can enhance inherent stochasticity. This complicates efforts to relate phenological variation to environmental variability in the wild. Accordingly, we must be careful to consider random forcing in phenological processes, lest we fit models to data dominated by random noise. This is particularly true for colonial species where breeding synchrony may outweigh each individual's effort to time breeding with optimal environmental conditions. Our study highlights the importance of identifying appropriate null models for studying phenology.