The story of fligthless birds

Once upon a time in an enchanted world there were two penguin brothers who lived on opposite poles of it. They belonged to two separate families, like the Montecchi and the Capulets of the sea: to the south Spheniscidae and to the north Alcidae

But unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy that we all know, these two families have never fought, simply because the existence of one did not affect the other. They could have lived for millennia and millennia undisturbed, as unaware cohabitants in their respective habitats. 

However, the threat lurked around the corner. It is a ferocious beast that evolved to walk on two legs, able to use the intellect; who stands unquestionably above the others in the world. The small northern penguins (Pinguinus impennis), first discovered in what we all know as the Arctic (probably spread both in the North Atlantic and in the Pacific), trusted the ferocious beast. This act of trust brought them to their end in 1844

Credit: from The Auk 101: 1-12. January 1984

They were hunted as a source of food, and as bait for fishing for cod and lobster. The feathers of this creature, Pinguinus impennis, were used to build strange objects to rest the weary limbs of the beasts: pompous pillows of sewn death. 

Although the beast led the species to death, the Alcidae family for its part lived by marking time like what Westerners would call a snail. The penguins were able to give birth to a single baby after 4-7 years, with a single ovoid and elongated egg that measured an average of 12.4 cm in length and 7.6 cm in width at the widest point. Each of these eggs had very particular drawings that helped the parents to recognize them. After 39-44 days the baby peeped out, helping to break the egg with its beak. 

The ferocious beast was also able to steal the eggs from the parents who took care of them so lovingly. They were taken for collection purposes, preventing many little ones from walking the path of life. 

The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) was unable to take flight despite being part of the Aves class (birds) and this did not even allow it to spread and reproduce enough to avoid extinction at the hands of the beast. However, they were large planes of the seas, able to fly underwater like torpedoes, to escape in an elegant and agile way the other creatures of the sea. 

What a sad story, this of the great auk; what is fabulous about loss, lack, and what in scientific jargon is called extinction? 

The ferocious beast subsequently proved to be a true bearer of intellect, and it did so by giving a chance to penguin species discovered in the years to come in what we know as Antarctica. Indeed, on the opposite side of the world, the monster has discovered the great auk’s siblings, penguins.  

For a long time, the survived penguins have been observed and what has come out is here reported.  

They have adapted to harsh environmental conditions through remarkable morphological, physiological and behavioral changes. And because the great auk’s siblings, too, could not fly, one of them jumped into the water to fetch the fish for its brothers and sisters. One by one, penguins followed it and eventually became like arrows swishing through water thanks to their flippers which allowed them a highly efficient propulsion. 

Credit: WWF

But when the whole crowd returned on land, even the polar bears had a laugh or two for the way they walked. Even though their leg bones were changed so that they would walk upright, they were the goofiest inhabitants of the Southern hemisphere. The coldest days were about to kick in, so their flight feathers mutated into thermal ones for the proper insulation. 

Nowadays, most of the 17 species of penguins wear a hooded black cloak over their shoulders, while their chest and bellies remain white. On particular occasions, such as attracting the ladies or going to a ball, some of them like to dress up, adding yellow and orange shades either as their brow turfs, around their eyes and beaks, or on their feet. 

In the austral spring and summer, penguin males like to sing caraoche and impress their potential girlfriends. This is the time when breeding takes place. After their girlfriends have laid the eggs, they stop fooling around and finally become responsible dads. They send their soulmates to feed, while they sit on a few eggs for a month or so. These dads try their best to keep their daughter and son penguins warm. The practice requires a lot of patience and especially energy, that comes from their fat reserves. If snowy storms come towards them, all the machos gather together and hug themselves tightly, into what is called a huddle, to keep warm and, therefore, protect their children. 

Meanwhile, mothers walk for hundreds of kilometers to reach the sea and take off to hunt. When they have filled their tummies with nutritious fish they have been chasing underwater, they return to the nesting area. 

After a month in which the dad has been patiently sitting on the eggs, the hatchlings begin to break the egg shell. Baby penguins are born and their parents, prouder than ever, take care in turn for two months straight. Babies grow into teenagers and finally go to sea in January. 

They return back to the place where they were born again in spring or summer, now in their adulthood. They are ready to find their soulmates and have baby penguins. This strong tendency to return to their nesting site is called philopatry. 

However, when penguins rejoin, they find their mates from the previous year or search for another one through fashion shows or caraoche nights. To be as fabulous as ever before, each penguin changes its dress through a process called molting. Depending on the species, molting lasts from a few weeks to more than a month, in a separate area, away from the nesting area. During molting, the penguins must remain on land because in water they would be completely unprotected and inefficient as divers. 

Late winter and early spring months are all about tuning in with the sea. A penguin takes off for an adventure by sliding on its belly above the extensive ice platforms, full of tobogans. It gathers speed and directionality with its flippers, and so avoids candid camera scenes. The fun only increases when it jumps into the water. 

Credit: Photo Tours

In water, the black-coated adrenaline junky gains even more speed and jumps above the surface in leaps, taking breaths and getting ready for the next immersion. Its swimming skills are so impeccable that no krill, cephalopod or small fish can get away. These prays have no escape, but so doesn’t the adrenaline junky when a leopard seal and killer whale join the game. Among the numerous fights a penguin must survive during its lifetime, it protects itself with the beak and his flippers. Even though the penguin finds its way back from sea to the nesting area, it remains unclear how it manages to survive great distances, threats and strong off-shore currents that usually predominate in the subpolar regions. 

It might be that both penguins and members of Spheniscidae and Alcidae, apart from being adrenaline junkies underwater, were scouts too. An internal magical compass has helped the penguins to orient with the sun either upon arriving to sea or returning on land. The only difference between the two groups is that the Great auk belonging to Alcidae were unfortuned to be discoverd firstly.  

It seems a sad made-up story, but this one that has been told, speaks of the man, the murdered auk and penguis. However, if it is true that one can learn from one’s mistakes, man must have understood what his horrors were.

Happy holidays from Marina Bruno & Aja Trebec

The Auk 101: 1-12. January 1984 

Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. 15: 15–22 (2005) 

Bertelli, S. and Giannini, N.P., 2005. A phylogeny of extant penguins (Aves: Sphenisciformes) combining morphology and mitochondrial sequences. Cladistics, 21(3), pp.209-239. 

Stonehouse, B., 1967. The general biology and thermal balances of penguins. In Advances in ecological research (Vol. 4, pp. 131-196). Academic Press. 

Merkel, J., Jones, H.I., Whiteman, N.K., Gottdenker, N., Vargas, H., Travis, E.K., Miller, R.E. and Parker, P.G., 2007. Microfilariae in Galápagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) and flightless cormorants (Phalacrocorax harrisi): genetics, morphology, and prevalence. Journal of Parasitology, 93(3), pp.495-503.

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