25th June 2010

Penguins are all the same shape, mostly the same color, and all make a living in the same way. They differ in size, where they live, and how they raise their families.


Instead of regular wings, penguins have flippers. They cannot be used for flying but are needed for what the penguin does best, swimming. Penguins have such short legs that they are awkward on land. If they are traveling on ice or snow sometimes they "bellyflop" and scoot themselves along with feet and flippers. Those that live where there is no snow or ice sometimes go on all fours, using their flippers for front legs.


Penguins are mainly black and white. They look something like fat little men in black suits and white shirts. Some have orange or yellow patches about the face. Some look as though they were wearing orange ear muffs. The adelie (a-day-lee) penguin is all black and white but has white rims around its eyes.


The adelie penguins are the cutest. They are fairly small and cuddly looking. In the southern winter, when we are having summer, they live at the northern edge of the Antarctic ice pack, perhaps 500 miles north of their summer homes. Adelie penguins have been seen as much as 900 miles from their nesting place.


In September or October, which would be like March or April for us, the adelies go back to their rookeries (nesting grounds) in the Antarctic. A rookery is usually located on a high cliff. The males come first and are able to find their last year's nests, although sometimes they are covered with snow. The females come later and find their mates. That must not be easy either! Men on a bird banding expedition estimated that there must have been 50,000 birds in a rookery they visited. How can a bird find its mate among thousands of others that look just alike? It is thought that the mates locate each other by the sound of the voice, rather than by sight.


Nest building is simple, using only the materials at hand. The male picks up pebbles and brings them to his mate, who places them in a circle around her. Two eggs are laid, and the parents take turns keeping them warm for 36 days. They also take turns guarding and feeding the chicks, which learn to take care of themselves by the end of the summer.


Adelie penguins seem to enjoy each other's company. They go swimming in groups and travel together to the rookery. But they fight, too. Some birds will try to steal another male's nest, or pebbles, or mate.


Penguins live on fish and other creatures that they catch in the water. The big emperor penguins can catch squid up to 3 feet long, although they may have to dive as deep as 180 feet to find them. They can swim under water at speeds up to 25 miles an hour and can shoot up out of the water to land on an ice pack.


Emperor penguins are the giants of the penguin family. A large one may be 4 feet tall and weigh 90 pounds. Like the adelies, their nesting grounds are on the Antarctic continent. Unlike the adelies, only one egg is laid, in May, at the beginning of the long, dark, Antarctic winter. Also unlike the adelies, there is no squabbling over nests or nesting material. Emperor penguins do not use any. The male bird takes the egg on his feet, where he protects it from the cold with a flap of skin. The female bird goes out to sea to feed and build up a layer of blubber while the male shuffles about for two months with the egg. Of course he cannot get anything to eat, so he lives on the blubber he has stored up. When it is very cold the males huddle together, with the ones on the outside working their way in to the middle when they get too cold.


At the end of two months the eggs hatch and the mothers come back to take care of their chicks. How do they know when it is time to come back? Are they programmed by God? What other explanation is there?


It used to be thought that when the mother returned she simply took over any chick that was handy. But banding experiments have shown that the lady penguin comes back to her own mate and will feed only her own chick.


There are many different varieties of penguins. The yellow-eyed has a streak of yellow around the back of its head, from one eye to the other. It also has short yellow plumes on its head. It is gray instead of black and its flippers have white edges.


Yellow-eyed penguins do not nest on snow and ice. They live on New Zealand and other islands and stay in the same place the year around. They nest among rocks, under fallen logs or in holes, and their nests may be 100 yards apart and as much a half a mile from the sea. Yellow-eyed penguins were studied for 17 years by one man. He found that most of these birds mate for life. He also learned that they may live to be at least 18 years old.


The jackass penguin lives off the coast of South Africa. Nests are made in tunnels that the parent birds dig in the ground. As soon as the young ones are hatched they start braying like donkeys! They use their flippers like feet and can run on all fours and get away very quickly when danger threatens. People use the eggs for food. No wonder they are laid in tunnels!


Some penguins even live on the equator! The galapagos penguins live on the Galapagos islands off the coast of Ecuador. A stream of very cold water, called the Humboldt current, flows up from the Antarctic, cooling the ocean enough for penguins to live there.