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Bird of the Week: Emperor Penguin
Because now more than ever, we need some good birds.
Hello, friends. If you’re reading this blog I think it’s safe to assume that the news of the last two weeks has you feeling pretty exhausted, furious, anguished, wrenched, gutted, and other things that are simply beyond words. I’m with you. I’m there too.
This installment of Bird of the Week isn’t exactly counterprogramming. We don’t really do that here. Instead, it’s parallel (tandem?) programming. This bird ode exists in the same universe as the horrors taking place in Gaza. That’s true whether I say so or not. It’s the dissonance many of us are living with right now. Hopefully, this particular instance will make you feel slightly less insane instead of more.
*Prince voice* Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called “life”—and to celebrate a penguin. Not just any penguin, mind you, the most penguin-est penguin of all the penguins: the emperor penguin.
Oh hell yes. Before we get into this breathtaking beast. I have to give credit where credit is due. My muse here was none other than presenter Noel Fielding on last week’s episode of The Great British Bake Off:
Noel’s sweaters are basically a character on the show now (LOVING this season, by the way. Bake Off is BACK), but this one is definitely one of the all time greats. It also popped up on my screen on the heels of our last Bird of the Week, the macaroni penguin, and when I saw it, I just knew: It might be bread week in the tent, but it’s PENGUIN MONTH at the blog. It’s honestly the least we can do to atone for our failure to feature our flightless feathered friends until now.
Okay *cracks knuckles* let’s get into it.
The emperor penguin is the tallest and heaviest of all penguin species. It’s endemic to Antarctica (classic penguin behavior, love it), and it looks like this. Like, truly, bow down:
I feel obligated to note that I still hold a very deep and powerful sense memory from when I first really clocked emperor penguins. It was when I saw 1992’s Batman Returns—a lightly disturbing and all-time great film—for the first time. (If you’re curious here’s a very cool piece about how the production team created The Penguin’s penguin army.)
Anyway, that’s honestly a whole other story but now Jack and I have both mentioned Batman in our penguin pieces. Let’s get back to the bird. Look at them go!
Emperor penguins can live up to 20 years, weigh up to 88 pounds, and stand nearly four feet tall. To withstand their extremely harsh environment where temperatures can drop to -58°F and winds can reach 125 mph, they rely on a thick layer of blubber and cooperative behavior, huddling together in colonies of dozens and rotating the arrangement so that everyone gets a chance to be at the toasty center. That’s mutual aid baby!
The gender dynamics in the emperor penguin world are also very counter-culture, and female emperor penguins are some of the coolest and most independent women on Earth. They lay a single egg and then embark on a months-long hunting trip while the males stay behind to keep the egg warm. They guard the egg the entire time the female is gone, forsaking food and enduring the frigid Antarctic elements alone. Then when the female is back with a gullet full of seafood, she takes over, regurgitating the goods to the baby while the male heads off to fend for himself. We love a firm division of labor when it comes to parental duties, slay penguins.
To be clear, these round boys don’t just stand around all the time though. They can also climb ice cliffs, are phenomenal swimmers, and can dive up to 1800 feet to hunt for krill, fish, and squid. LOOK AT THEM BELLY SLIDE INTO THE WATER ahhhhh.
You know much of the rest—flightless, black and white and yellow coloring like a goddamn superhero, serial monogamists—but I have to admit, despite being relatively familiar with them, I found myself going DEEP on emperor penguins. Maybe it’s my mental state these days, but these birds are really a stunning species. There’s something about their stately manner paired with being absolute goofballs who live in one of the most severe places on earth that makes them deeply fascinating. Maybe it’s because they seem so alien and ill-conceived, and yet they are perfect. Maybe it’s because many photos of them look like band album covers:
As cool as they look, the environment of emperor penguins isn’t staying cool with them. Sea ice loss is threatening to decimate populations and it’s already wreaking havoc on colonies in Antarctica. Emperor penguins were granted endangered species protections in 2022, but with climate change literally breathing down their necks, these animals are at risk of “quasi-extinction” in the next several decades.
We write a lot about the threat levels and conservation status of the birds we cover, and frankly, most of the news is bad, but this news hits me particularly hard. Emperor penguins are an iconic, indelible species. But so is every species. We’re in an era where it feels like loss is all around us. We’re continually faced with what we stand to lose as the result of senseless greed, violence, and neglect, and prideful, hubristic, and hateful urges. It feels increasingly hard to see the morality or humanity amid the horror. It’s hard to witness the systemic annihilation of the things that make life, life. So we fight back, we kiss our loved ones, we write blogs about penguins, and cry quiet tears while doing it. For the penguins, and for a lot of other things.
I’m not sure of much but I’m sure grateful for this blog and those of you who read and care about Bird of the Week. I’m glad we can gather to appreciate and hold other living things as precious, and celebrate their weird and amazing ways.
Let’s end this one with David Attenborough, humanity’s greatest ambassador of the animal kingdom. And with baby penguins, one of the many remaining perfect things in this world.
Do you have a bird you want us to cover? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And as always, check out our full Bird of the Week list here.