Websailor's Wacky Wildlife World: Penguins

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A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of
salt, but with more than a grain of truth!

Dedicated Dads in Dinner Suits

As humans we pride ourselves (generally) on being the species that looks after our offspring well for something like 18 years and often longer. Yet there are others that care for and train their offspring for almost as long, such as elephants and Orang-utans, to name just two. Usually the mothers take the dominant role, and some fathers play a significant part, others do not!

However, for sheer guts, determination and dedicated parental responsibility (however short-lived) I doubt we could find a better role model than that funny looking creature that gave the somewhat derisory nickname 'penguin suits' to our dinner jackets or tuxedos. Oh, and books and biscuits too!

There are some seventeen species of
penguin, the largest being the Emperor penguin whose prowess as a parent I shall concentrate on here. For more detailed information delve in to this Edited Guide Entry on Penguins.

As the weather here is bitterly cold, snowy and icy, I felt somewhat in tune with these beautiful black and white birds over the New Year period as I watched (again) the distinctly chilly but very moving film
March of the Penguins.

This shows clearly how much care we should take not to judge a book by its cover whether animal or human. The Emperor penguin could so easily be regarded as a figure of fun with its rotund shape, waddling walk, and habit of tobogganing along on its tummy!

First, a brief outline of the Emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri. At a little over 3ft tall and weighing in at about 88 pounds, it feeds on squid, fish and crustaceans, (unlike other penguins who survive mostly on
krill). It is resident only in the Antarctic region. There are believed to be about 200,000 pairs, though who counted them I would like to know! They do not have the luxury of nests, and breed on freezing sea ice in just about the coldest place on our planet, at the bottom of the world.

They have a large imposing, almost 'snooty' head, a bull neck and a near rugby ball shape with waterproof feathers which are oiled and very sleek and shiny. Their outline is broken only by a long curved beak (hence the rather haughty look), a short tail and flippers— sorry, I mean wings, which are rather more use under water than in the air! They can dive up to 700 feet, staying underwater for almost 20 minutes. They have webbed feet which 'appear' not to be attached to a leg, giving them their unique, and amusing gait on land! Their blue- black backs and white fronts (hence the penguin suit) are relieved by 'earmuffs': yellow and white patches, with the yellow also tinging the top of the breast. Both sexes look the same and take anything up to eight years to reach sexual maturity.

They are the only Antarctic bird to breed in winter, in temperatures as low as -80ºF (- 62°C) which on the face of it seems to make the life of the adults difficult in the extreme, and the survival of the young somewhat touch and go. The habit appears to have evolved over thousands of years so that the chicks become independent at a time of plenty in food terms, and when fewer predators are around.

The Emperors gather together in breeding colonies, often thousands strong, travelling many miles to the same place year after year and far enough inland for the ice not to melt before the chicks are independent. The march of the penguins reminds me of the many marches humans have made over the centuries for work, freedom and many other reasons, but these birds do this every year of their adult lives for over 20 years, predators and pollution permitting.

Some will mate for life, others are more promiscuous. Their courtship displays are touching to watch as they stand face to face, head bent and bills pointing to the ground in a very submissive stance. 63 days later, around May, each female produces just one egg. These are incubated on the tops of the fathers' (yes, the fathers!) feet under a loose fold of skin known as a brood patch. These blood filled patches transfer body heat to the eggs. The eggs are white with a bluish green tint, about 4 to 4½ inches long and weighing in at as much as 18 ounces.

The Emperors have a unique way of bringing up their young, the female passing the precious egg to the male who incubates the egg for over two months while the mother goes many miles away to sea to seek food. Watching the transfer of the precious egg from mother's feet to father's feet is a bit like watching two footballers dribbling a ball. Occasionally the egg slides on to the ice and is quickly rescued before it gets chilled. The egg is an elliptical shape and pointed at one end, so if an egg perched precariously on father's feet rolls off, it rolls in a circle rather than away from the parent. Neat!

The father fasts during the entire incubation period, living off ample body fat/blubber until the female returns. The males gather together, huddled up against the bitter cold winds, shuffling round to take turns in the middle or the cold outside until the eggs hatch. All of this while standing up and shuffling round. Can you see a human father suffering such deprivation?

By some miracle of nature when the females return they find their partners and offspring by voice alone. Imagine trying to find one's partner by shouting at a rock concert or football match with all that noise! The chicks will stay snug in the brood pouch on mothers' feet until they can control their own body temperatures. Poor father, having passed his small burden to mother has to trek anything up to 60 miles to the sea to find food and replenish his body fat.

Once a little more independent, the fluffy grey bundles of chick begin to explore and mingle, and take their chances with predators in waiting for just that moment. Around January they will have lost their grey fluffy feathers, and begin to look like real penguins, ready to face the open sea much as their predecessors have done for centuries.

They risk predation by Leopard seals, Antarctic giant petrels (not my favourite bird having watched it in action), orca, skua and sharks. Their swimming speed of at least 8 miles per hour is an advantage, particularly against the dreaded Leopard seal, and their agility in water is a huge contrast to their somewhat clumsy and comical movements on the ice.

It is interesting to see how human habits have changed to protect such precious species. At one time abandoned sled dogs and their offspring preyed upon penguins after mechanical vehicles took over their work, but the removal of all dogs from Antarctica by April 1994, in spite of considerable resistance, put a stop to that.

Emperor penguins are not, as yet, classed as endangered but there is concern that numbers might dwindle if ice continues to melt too rapidly. America was due to give threatened or endangered status to seven species of penguin by 19th December 2009 but failed to do so.

Center for Biological Diversity said on the 4th January 2010 that the current administration was doing even less for penguins than the previous administration. Unfortunately the Emperor, Northern Rockhopper and Macaroni penguins were not included in the proposed protection, in spite of strong evidence that these species were threatened by climate change.

Pollution, habitat destruction, ocean acidification and industrial fishing depleting food supplies were also cited as cause for concern. It seems that political will is lacking in so many important areas, but we must not give up hope that nature will triumph.

In the meantime I will leave you to enjoy this

enchanting tale
of three Emperor penguin chicks, their families, habitat and their endearing interaction with humans.

Please take a few minutes to read and enjoy, you won't regret it.

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