Feature photo shows Emperor penguins on the Brunt Ice Shelf which broke away from Antarctica.
By Elizabeth Trickey
April 25th is World Penguin Day, and I, for one, will be celebrating their existence with fond memories of my trip to Antarctica! I know, these animals haven’t come within thousands of miles of Canada. So why am I writing about them? Because I think they are such amazing critters! My adventure to Antarctica was the first thing I did after I retired, sailing on a small National Geographic research/tourism vessel, seeing tens of thousands of penguins! Cost me bundles, but I plan to go back one day. That’s how incredible this trip was.
Photos above are courtesy of Elizabeth Trickey from her adventure to Antarctica Trip.
There are 18 species of penguin, all classified as “Aves” (birds), in the Family “Spheniscidae”. You might wonder why they are not classified as fish since they are incapable of flight, and instead spend a significant amount of time in the water. In fact, they have torpedo-like bodies which glide gracefully through the water, propelled by their little wings which act more like the flippers of aquatic animals. But birds, they are, with warm-blooded bodies covered in tiny feathers. Unlike other species of birds that have hollow bones to reduce weight in flight, penguins have solid bones. This is because they swim, and hollow bones would make them too buoyant in the water.
Penguins are found only in the southern hemisphere, and not only just near the Antarctic Circle. Most species are spread out through much warmer climates including the southern coasts of Australia, Africa, South America, and even the Galapagos Islands! So often we see picture books, cartoons, commercials, and jokes with polar bears and penguins cavorting. Well, don’t believe everything you see! These 2 animals don’t even know that the other exists since they live at opposite poles of our planet!
I presume many of you readers have seen the 2005 National Geographic documentary “March of the Penguins”, narrated by Morgan Freeman. What a terrific movie that was! What an ordeal those penguins go through every year! If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
A group of penguins goes by 2 different names, depending on where they are seen. While swimming, the group is referred to as a “raft”. When they are on land, they are called a “waddle”. And waddle they do, quite awkwardly moving along worn-down paths they make on land and through the snow, called “penguin highways”. It is interesting why these animals waddle since they have reasonably long legs that include having knees. They should be able to walk with far more agility, but evidently, nature had other plans for them. Over time, since penguins spent so much time in the water, their bodies evolved to facilitate swimming – their legs became set further back, changing their centre of gravity. Waddling isn’t a very quick way to get from one place to another, so if there is a slight, smooth incline available, penguins will flop down on their bellies and glide along the snow!
Photos above show Gentoo Penguins on the “penguin highways” Antarctica.
Being carnivores, the diet of penguins include fish, squid, crab, and krill (little shrimp-like animals). Instead of having teeth, their mouths have backward facing spines which guide the food down their throats. Penguins spend 80% of their time foraging for food in the ocean, making up to 200 dives per day! These birds range in size, from 1-4 feet tall, depending on the species. They live on land in large colonies called rookeries.
I remember one area we visited when in Antarctica – there were over 10 000 penguins in that rookery. Busy penguins constantly moving from water to nest and back again. Quite the sight, but more than that, the incredible smell! In the South Sandwich Islands of Antarctica there is a colony of 2 million penguins – so huge that it can be seen from space! And penguins aren’t just black and white. Some have bright yellow and orange chest feathers and beaks, while others, like the Rockhopper or Macaroni, sport long, colourful feathers that stick way out from their heads making them look like they’re part of a punk rock band!
Generally, penguins fall in love and mate for life. Don’t believe me? They are romantic creatures that spend oodles of time preening their feathers so they look good for each other. During courtship, a male will search through millions of pebbles on a beach, looking for the best one that might win the heart of his lady-love! When he finds the perfect stone, he presents it to his sweetheart, and if she accepts his advances, it’s a match! Penguin couples will touch necks, rub beaks together in penguin kisses, dance, and pat each other on the back with their wings. They also compose a unique tune that is sung only for their adored mate, which is an excellent way for them to find one another in a sea of thousands of black and white neighbours!
In the spring, Momma penguins build nests out of stones for their chicks. Although details change between species, most females lay 1 or 2 eggs. The first egg is usually smaller than the second, and oddly enough, it is the bigger egg that is given the most attention, including after it hatches. The larger chick is considered to have the best chance of survival so it gets fed first while the smaller chick only gets to eat what the bigger one doesn’t. Click below to see the video of Poppa penguin overseeing, and celebrating, in the laying of his progeny.
Momma and Poppa take turns tending to the eggs, except in the case of Emperor penguins, where only Poppa takes care of it. Eggs vary in size, from 3-11cm, depending on the size of the species, and the larger the egg, the longer it takes to hatch. After 1-2 months of incubation, it takes the babies about 3 days to break through the egg shell. They come out fuzzy, blind, and helpless. Momma and Poppa continue to take turns protecting and feeding the chicks through the regurgitation of partially digested seafood.
Emperor penguins are different than most other species of penguins, in that after Momma lays her 1 egg, she leaves Poppa to take care of it, while she goes off to feed for a couple of months. In the time that she is away, the chick hatches and Poppa protects it and keeps it warm, until she returns. Poppa, along with thousands of other fathers with their eggs, huddle together, sheltering the eggs on their feet. They have a pouch of skin hanging over top of the egg to keep it warm. However, there is no food for Poppa or the chick until Momma returns from the ocean. When Momma does return from feeding, it is quite the effort to find her husband and new baby. Click below to view the interesting way that Momma finds her husband and baby.
The little chicks develop fairly quickly, being able to see and lift their heads for food, after just a few hours of hatching. The first few weeks are precarious for the babies since they need constant care to keep warm until they grow more downy, weatherproof feathers, and especially because they have not yet developed the ability to regulate their own temperature. As these wee ones get older, they start venturing out of their nests to learn living skills, forming creches, which are like daycare centres! Click the video below to see (and hear!) the chicks in their creche.
And talk about sibling rivalry! Lots of fights happen that Momma and Poppa can deal with when the chicks are younger. But as these babies get older and are able to waddle around the colony, they actually chase the parents to be first fed, hitting them with their beaks. Being the responsible, considerate caregivers that they are, Momma and Poppa scamper away from them as fast as their little legs will go! Eventually the little ones will find them and the fight for supremacy begins again!
Penguin babies are taken care of for 6 months to a year. When they moult their fluffy baby down feathers and grow a more weatherproof plumage, they are ready to go out to sea to catch their own food. They will go through moults each year, like every penguin does, looking more and more like adults each time this occurs. Prior to moulting, they eat as much as they can since their new feathers take about 3 weeks to grow and they are unable to hunt for food in the freezing oceans without the protection of their warm, waterproof feathers.
When the young ones leave the colony, they don’t return until it is time for them to breed which can be many years later. They have to be very careful of their many predators as they learn to navigate the ocean by themselves. Animals such as seals, sharks, whales, and skuas (birds) call the penguins dinner. I remember being on the deck of our NG vessel, watching these 3 huge whales chasing this one little penguin in the water. The poor thing was greatly outnumbered at 3-1, and the whales were so huge in comparison. But the wee bird had manoeuvrability on its side. Those of us on deck watched with anticipation at this chase as the tiny penguin deked right, made a sharp turn left, dipped down low, faked a left, and finally vamoosed, leaving those huge, confused whales looking around, wondering where it had disappeared to. Such a cheer on deck was heard! That’s one for the underdog! I guess size doesn’t matter!!
Penguins are able to breed at 3-8 years old, and aren’t usually successful in their first endeavour. A significant number of penguins never even get that old since a third of them die before that time, most being eaten by predators. The lifespan of a wild penguin is difficult to know, but estimated at 15-20 years.
Earlier in this article I mentioned that penguins often mate for life and that they are romantic and caring. In zoos, each loving penguin couple creates its own nest where they bring up their chicks. And what zoos around the world are noticing is that some penguins prefer a relationship with one of their own gender. Like heterosexual couplings, these same-sex partners have the same ingrained desire to raise a family, which causes problems since they need a fertilized egg to incubate. Female couples can lay eggs, but unless they are fertilized, the egg won’t develop. Male couples resort to stealing eggs from other penguins or even sitting on egg-sized stones! Often, zoos will help the gay couples to adopt fertilized eggs from other penguins that have difficulty caring for 2 eggs at a time. It is unknown how prevalent same-sex partnerships are in the wild, though it is seen in many species of penguins, as well as at least 450 other animals such as the dolphin, bonobo, human, and albatross species. Click on the video below to see Skip and Ping become parents.
Here’s a penguin fact that will have you readers googling for the truth: A King penguin in the Edinburgh zoo was knighted! Sir Nils Olav Penguin! He was proclaimed the Colonel-in-Chief of the Norwegian Guard. I wonder if it is protocol to salute or bow before him?
Of the 18 species of penguins on Earth, 13 are labelled as threatened – 5 are endangered, 5 are vulnerable, and 3 are near-threatened. The Galapagos penguin is the rarest of all the species. Over millions of years, these amazing animals have slowly evolved and adapted to be able to survive in very harsh conditions. The impact of human development and global warming has altered their ecosystem so much that they are no longer able to find all the nourishment they need. A food staple for penguins, and most aquatic animals, is krill, and due in large part to the effects of global warming, the population of krill has dropped 80% in the last 40 years. These tiny crustaceans are the size and weight of a paperclip, yet are considered a keystone species in our oceans. Without them, what will the marine animals eat?
Global warming also has the effect of creating more storms which are having devastating effects on penguin breeding grounds. Studies note that fewer chicks are growing to adulthood since they are unable to survive the storms because they haven’t yet grown their warm, waterproof coats. This next fact is heart-breaking. The second largest penguin colony in the world has recently been wiped out due to the storms. The Emperor penguins at Halley Bay in the Antarctic relied on the sea ice for breeding, and due to unusually stormy weather in 3 consecutive years (2016-2018), the sea ice broke apart before the chicks were old enough to live in the freezing temperatures of the ocean.
As well, global warming has caused ocean temperatures to rise, forcing some species of penguins to move further south to where the water is cooler, in order to find food. Warmer water leads to famines, and as food shortages are becoming more frequent, additional species are starving.
The Atlantic Treaty of 1959 protects penguins and their eggs in Antarctica. But not all species of penguin live there. Many of these animals live closer to civilization and are enduring other threats to their lives including being tangled in fishing nets, attack from invasive species, being blocked from their breeding sites, oil spills, plastic debris, pollution, over-fishing, and loss of habitat. In Africa, over a 30 year period, 13 million penguin eggs were taken by humans. Now there are only 50,000 African penguins left, a drop of 95% in their population!
Some countries are trying to deal with these threats by getting rid of non-indigenous animals, developing vegetation programs, banning the raid on rookeries for the penguin poo which is used for fertilizer, and putting up “penguin crossing” signs where these birds waddle across roads. There is a further need to limit over-fishing, stop the production and usage of plastics, require the building of industrial developments away from nesting sites, and protect rookeries from ocean traffic and noise.
There are several ways that individuals can aid in the survival of these extraordinary animals. The first is to support groups that challenge companies and governments to engage in practices that protect marine habitats. We can all help with climate change by cutting back on non-essential purchases, eating less meat, using public transportation, and walking instead of driving. For penguins and other aquatic animals, we can purchase our seafood from sustainable fisheries and make sure that the plastic we do come across is disposed of properly so that animals don’t get strangled by it.
This April 25th, celebrate World Penguin Day by following through on some of the above actions. Take in a few episodes of Pingu for some laughs! Cook up some popcorn and watch “March of the Penguins” to be thoroughly astounded at the Emperors’ incredible annual ordeal. Or how about reading the book “And Tango Makes Three” to your kids? It’s the true story of Roy and Silo, 2 penguins from a zoo in New York, that is posted below.
Lastly, you can always share some corny penguin jokes:
Where do penguins keeping their money?
In a snow bank, of course!
What do penguins eat for lunch?
What do you call a cold penguin?
What do you call a penguin in the desert?
Why shouldn’t you write a book on penguins?
Because writing a book on paper is much easier!
Why do polar bears and penguins not get along?
Because they are polar opposites.
Why don’t you ever see penguins in Great Britain?
Because they’re scared of Wales!
Why do penguins always carry fish in their beaks?
They don’t have any pockets!