World Penguin Day 2020

World Penguin Day 2020

World Penguin Day is celebrated to honour penguins, one of the world’s most unique birds. It is timed to coincide with the annual northerly migration of the Adelie penguins which are endemic to Antarctica. The northward migration is essential for food during the winter months. Returning back to Antarctica in the summer for nesting, breeding on the coastal beaches. This day was created by the resident scientists working at McMurdo Station, an American research centre on Ross Island.

Gentoo penguins Antarctica
Gentoo penguin highway, Antarctica
Why do we celebrate World Penguin Day?

It is an education initiative to encourage people to learn more about all the penguins of the world and to raise awareness of their life, endangerment, and the decreasing population of these adorable and amazing flightless birds. Their decreasing population is mainly due to human activities, such as climate change, ocean pollution, oil spills, overfishing, illegal egg harvesting, the introduction of predators. Natural predators are skuas, caracaras, and sheathbills which are carnivorous birds who prey on penguin eggs and young chicks.

Skua, Antarctica
Skua, Antarctica
A pair of skuas, Falkland Islands
A pair of Skuas with a stolen Gentoo penguin egg, Falkland Islands
Sheathbill, Antarctica
Sheathbill, Antarctica
A pair of sheathbills, Antarctica
A pair of sheathbills, Antarctica
Caracara, Falkland Islands
Caracara, Falkland Islands

Skua's over gentoo penguin colony
Skua’s hovering over Gentoo penguin colony at sunset hoping to steal an egg or a chick
Penguin facts:

There are 18 species of penguins, 11 of which are Globally Threatened (WWF, IUCN). Penguins are aquatic flightless birds and live mainly in the cooler climates of the Southern hemisphere (Antarctic Coastline, sub-Antarctic Islands, Falkland Islands, and New Zealand). There are some penguins who live in warmer climates such as the Galapagos Islands and South Africa.

Trio of King penguins, Falkland Islands
A trio of King penguins, Falkland Islands
Chinstrap penguin, Antarctica
Chinstrap penguin, Antarctica
Rockhopper penguins swimming, Falkland Islands
Rockhopper penguins using their strong bodies, flippers and feet to propel themselves out of the water, Falkland Islands

Penguins spend half their life divided between land and sea. Their food source is mainly fish, krill, and squid which they catch during their deep-water diving. Their coat of short overlapping feathers is waterproof with a layer of fat beneath which provides excellent insulation for swimming in the freezing waters. Their feet and tail act as rudders and their flippers act as propellers.

Magellanic penguins heading out to sea, Falkland Islands
Magellanic penguins heading out to sea on Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands
Rockhopper landing on the rocks, Falkland Islands
Rockhopper penguin landing on the rocks following a swim in the ocean, Falkland Islands
Why don’t penguins fly?

Some evidence suggests that penguins once did fly but over time their wings became shorter, the bones fused together and flattened and formed into flippers. Being mainly aquatic birds spending up to 75% of their lives in the water swimming, fishing, and migrating during their feeding they require strong flippers. It is due to evolution they eventually lost their ability to fly. Strong flippers are needed for survival, swimming, diving, and fleeing from their sea predators; leopard seals, killer whales, and sea-lions. Penguins can swim up to 24 km/h and dive down to over 15 metres.

Penguins waddle clumsily along swaying from side to side, this is due to their heavy bodies and short legs. They also walk this way to conserve energy. At times they will toboggan along the ice and snow on their bellies.

Gentoo penguins waddling down the snowy mountains, Antarctica
Gentoo penguins waddling down the snowy mountain, Antarctica

Their black and white ‘tuxedo’ colouring serves a vital camouflage in the water. It is known as countershading. Its black back blends into the dark hues of the deep ocean and from below their white belly blends into the light surface waters.

Penguins live in very harsh climates. Their feathers help to regulate their body temperature, protect against the elements, and provide insulation while swimming in the icy waters. They spend many hours during the day preening their feathers to ensure they are in good condition. They have an oil gland at the base of their tail which secretes a water-repelling and microbial deterring oil that is dispersed over their body during their preening to ensure their feathers are waterproof.

Colony of Gentoo chicks braving the storm, Falkland Islands
Gentoo penguin chicks huddling together for protection on a 100 km windy day.

Most penguins species will breed in colonies of up to 1000 birds, while others will create their nests out of pebbles, sticks, and feathers. Emperor and King penguins will incubate a single egg on the top of their feet under a loose fold of skin which keeps the egg warm. Other penguins will make their nests in burrows in the ground.

King penguin tenderly caring for its egg, Falkland Islands
King penguin tenderly caring for its egg, Falkland Islands

In some species, the male will incubate the egg while the female goes off to hunt for food, often for weeks at a time. Both parents will take care of the incubation and rearing their hatchling until it is old enough to hunt for food, which can be 7-12 months.

Magellanic penguin with her two chicks
Magellanic penguin chicks with their parent
Gentoo penguin caring for her newly hatched chicks
Gentoo penguin tenderly caring for her two chicks

Threats

Despite their strong robust bodies, large colonies, and ability to survive in harsh remote environments penguins face many critical dangers. By understanding actual and potential threats we can work towards protecting these amazing flightless birds by protecting them and preventing any more loss.

It is human behaviour that is having the most detrimental effect on penguins’ environment and major cause their decline in numbers.

  • Overfishing – penguins rely on fish and krill as their primary food source. Fishing in or near penguins feeding ground depletes their food supply. Many penguins get caught up in fishermen’s nets and fishing lines resulting is severe injuries and or drowning. Fishing boats leaking fuel and other pollutants into the water affects their habitat.
  • Climate change – changing ocean temperatures e.g. warming temperatures melting ice reduces penguin habitats for breeding areas.
  • Oil spills – penguins spend most of their lives at sea, oil spills and other oceanic pollutants can be devastating for penguins. Large cruise ships spilling oil and dumping rubbish out at sea causing pollution.
  • Invasive species – introduced cats, rats, mice, rabbits, and dogs all contribute to a decline in penguins, their eggs, and young chicks.
  • Tourists – viewing too close to penguin colonies causing penguins to flee off nests leaving their eggs and chicks unguarded which becomes a target for predators to steal their eggs and chicks.
  • Poaching – penguin hunting and egg poaching. Diseases and severe weather patterns also play a part in the loss of penguin lives.
  • Lack of research – it is important to be constantly aware of the major threats to penguins to enable appropriate conservation measures to be implemented.
Conservation status

Many of the penguin species are endangered as their population is decreasing which can lead to extinction. The African penguin and the Galapagos penguin are both considered endangered. Other species of penguin are on the cusp of becoming endangered are the Emperor and Adelie penguins, both of which live in Antarctica. Education and raising awareness is essential for penguins survival. Choose ethical penguin viewing tours, keep a distance from breeding colonies not to scare or disrupt the penguins, support local penguin research and conservation programs, sponsor a penguin.

Gentoo penguin colony, Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands
Gentoo penguin colony, Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands

References

https://www.iucnredlist.org/search?query=Penguins&searchType=species

https://www.birdlife.org/list-penguin-species

https://www.thespruce.com/threats-to-penguins-386309

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