Short, fat and looking as if they were attending a formal dinner dressed in a tuxedo, penguins could easily be mistaken for people from a distance!
Penguins are flightless birds found in the southern hemisphere. No, they are NOT found near the North Pole. Scientists feel that these birds became flightless as food was available in plenty. But their food was located underwater so they adapted to the sea with short flipper-like wings.
Penguins have short legs and when they want to move fast, they slide on the ice on their bellies. Penguins eat fish and squid and live in large colonies called rookeries. There are 18 penguin species ranging from the smallest, the Little Blue at 40 cm to the Emperor Penguins at 120 cm. Only two species – the Adelie and the Emperor penguin – live in the Antarctic.
Penguins are excellent swimmers and this is where they use their wings. These birds use their wings to propel themselves in the water and also take short flights, like hens, out of the water to come on to land. Their dives may last up to 15 minutes and they can reach speeds of 35 kilometres per hour.
Penguins are well adapted to the sea and the bitter cold of the southern pole. To keep the water out of their body, they have oily, thickly-packed feathers that also help retain heat. A layer of thick fat protects them from the icy cold.
In late September, hundreds of thousands of penguins move to their breeding ground to mate. Each year the same pair of penguins mate. The female lays one or two eggs. Both male and female penguins take care of the eggs. The eggs are clutched tightly with the feet under their soft stomachs.
After eight weeks, the eggs hatch and the chick sits on the parents feet, as the ground is still too cold for its bottom! When the chicks are three weeks old, they join a crèche. These crèches are not what you think.
A crèche here is a group of penguins huddled together for warmth. A crèche consists of thousands of little chicks taken care of by a few adults. Penguin parents cannot identify their own babies in this crowd of chicks.
When the parent arrives with food, it stays outside the crowd and squawks loudly. The chick on hearing the parent’s voice, comes running. Sometimes other hungry chicks, too, follow, but the parents now recognise their chicks by their persistence.
During the harsh winter months, adults also huddle in tight groups for warmth. However, if they get too hot they fluff their feathers and hold out their wings.
It is mistakenly thought that when in a huddled group, penguins on the outside change places with penguins on the inside after a while. Actually it’s the survival of the fittest. Some penguins have to be on the outside of any group. These are constantly trying to get inside the group for warmth. So it looks as if the group is constantly in motion with members changing places.