are thought by some to be unintelligent
creatures, but a close examination of their behavior
reveals that they are intelligent
animals who lead complicated lives. Many of their social manners
are unique amongst
and their quasi-aquatic lifestyle
is still somewhat of a mystery to mankind
These factors and more have led to a surge in the number of scientists
striving to study
the behavior of penguins and the amount of literature
available on penguin behavior.
Penguins are not blessed with the ability to sing sonorously,
but they are among the most communicative of birds. The noises that penguins emit
vary with the specie. African, Humbold, Megallanic, and Galapagos penguins all make
braying sounds (like a donkey). The Yellow-eyed penguin makes a trilling sound.
The Chinstrap has a shrill, screaming voice. The King penguin makes a trumpeting
sound. A penguin’s somewhat synonymous and limited voicings take on different
meanings within the context of a given situation and the intonation in which they are
issued. Voices are used mainly to warn or attract. All penguin pairs sing a duet as
part of their display (in courtship activities), and it’s not just for entertainment. They
learn to recognize each other’s voice. That’s very important because there are
thousands of look-alikes in a rookery.
Penguins also employ body language as a means to
converse. Surely, the most threatening act of a penguin is its charge. To accomplish
this feat, the bird will lean forward, extend its wings, and move towards the opposing
individual. Noises may or may not be included in a charge. When a penguin points
with its bill, it is usually a sign of aggression. Most often it is directed at another
species and is used when an unsuspecting individual encroaches upon the pointing
party’s territory. Not all penguin body language is hostile, though. Physical
communication is also utilized in conjunction with vocal communication in a penguin’s
aforementoined courtship display.
As with all animals, the majority of the penguin’s day is
filled with the search for food and the desire to refrain from being someone else’s
food. As a hunter, a penguin operates with extreme efficiency. Penguins do not just
swim through the ocean with their bills open, hoping to net some victuals. Instead,
they apply predatory techniques, such as encircling their prey to capture what they
desire most. There are basically three factors that determine what food a penguin eats:
habitat, diving depth, and what is available. This, of course, tends to make different
species develop different predispositions. For instance--the Adélies’ favorite food is
krill, Magellanics prefer squid, and Black-footed penguins crave fish. Penguins obtain
most of their food by swimming and diving. Their coats are exquisitely made for this
activity because they are wind- and water-resistant. A penguin’s diet varies among
species. The larger penguins, such as the Emperor, feed mainly on fish and squid, both
of which are plentiful in its Antarctic habitat. Smaller penguins, like the Gentoos, prefer
krill, which are euphausid crustaceans that reside in nearby cold waters.
As an object of prey, the penguin uses preventative
measures since it lacks the fighting skills necessary to defend itself in a battle. On land
and in the sea penguins crowd together because it is harder for a predator to attack a
flock of birds than to attack a solitary bird. Some of the penguins’ predators include the
killer whale, the leopard seal, the sheathbill, and the giant petrel. Aside from these
predators who seek to hunt the penguin for food, there is one who is killing the penguin
at a much faster rate. This unnatural enemy is man. Penguins that reside in South
America have been plagued by rookery raids from local tribes who believe penguin
eggs contain certain medicinal qualities, and many other species have been killed for
“sport.” Greater than these dangers is man’s destruction of the penguin’s habitat.
Annual anchovy harvests, toxic waste, and increased scientific research have all led
to a lesser quality of life for the penguin.
Another main activity in the life of any animal is the process
of mating. Penguins become very social and very violent during the mating season.
New postures and calls enlarge the behavioral repertoire of the sexually-mature
penguin as he begins to search for his mate. Bloodshed is not uncommon during this
season and deaths are inevitable. It is during the mating season that one is first
introduced to penguin displays. There are two different displays that penguins employ
during the breeding season--mutual displays and ecstatic displays. The former is
used to attract a mate and is done alone, while the latter strengthens the already
established couple’s bond by both penguins participating. A penguin couple will perform
regular rituals to strengthen the bond between themselves and to ensure that they will
be able to recognize one another easily. There are ritual displays and calls, and males
will often present their female partners with stones or other nesting material, etc.
Penguins are known for their fidelity. However, some penguins do split up, resulting in
a divorce rate of roughly seventeen percent. These ruptures are most often accidents
and are seen more frequently among the younger, inexperienced penguins.
Once two penguins have committed to one another, they will
take on the responsibility of raising young. Parenthood is a shared duty. Penguin
couples take turns looking after the egg(s). While one parent is incubating the egg, the
other searches for food. The length of these harvests vary among species--larger
penguins take months while smaller penguins might take only a few days. Another
factor that alters between species is the number of young raised and the time it takes
to raise them. The King penguin is unique among penguin species because it can raise
up to two chicks in a three-year period. Most other species raise one chick every two
years or one every year. As opposed to the larger penguin species which raise only one
egg at a time, the crested penguins (Royal, Macaroni, Erec-Crested, Rockhopper,
Snares Island, and Fiordland) lay two eggs. The first egg is always smaller and is
usually rejected. However, it does serve as a back-up if the second egg fails to produce
After the egg hatches, the parents are faced with the
daunting task of rearing the baby. The Antarctic-bound Emperor male is a model
father. The first shift of babysitting falls to him. Since the Emperor penguin does not
have a nest, he must shuffle about with the young chick on his feet while the mother is
out at sea. If the baby touches the ice in the first two months of his life, he will freeze.
Therefore, he must be extremely careful and diligent in the protection of his fragile
progeny. As the child grows up, the parents allow him more freedom. Penguin parents
send their children to a type of day care--the crèche, where young penguins huddle
together for protection under the watchful eyes of a few elders. This huddle is an
added bonus for the Emperor chicks who must brave the violently cold winters of the
Antarctic. The juvenile stage will take from 6 to 12 weeks to complete for most
species. King penguins, however, can take up to 13 months. A young penguin is
ready to take his first trip out to sea when he has completed his first molt. Penguins,
unlike other birds, loose all their feathers in a sudden molt, revealing a new set of
feathers in their place.
Migration, the seasonal movement of a species to another
area, is the least understood of all penguin behaviors. Most penguins migrate back to
their breeding grounds in the spring months. What they do when they leave their
rookeries is still a unknown to man. The causes for the penguin’s migration are just as
sketchy. Obviously, a strong impetus for the penguin to return to land is the urge to
breed. Penguins also instinctively follow each other. This behavior may contribute to an
established breeding ground that is returned to year after year by the same individuals.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of penguins only visit the continent of Antarctica
to breed. The Emperor penguin is the only species that resides there all year.
The whole subject of penguin behavior, like any science, is
in a constant state of change and what we know as fact today could be fiction
tomorrow. Still, the penguin will continue to fascinate anyone who chances to see it or
read about it for many years to come.