Penguins are thought by some to be unintelligent and dull 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 animals 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 offspring.

    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.

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