Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: Emperor Penguin

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As I’m looking into the new year, it’s time for new birds to feature – and what better in a chilly month than the chilliest bird of all, the emperor penguin? There’s so much about this bird perfect for the new year and all its resolution hope, it’s no wonder that the emperor penguin takes the honor as our first featured bird of 2018.

Emperor Penguin

Emperor Penguin – Photo by Daoud Alahmad

Name: Emperor Penguin
Scientific Name: Aptenodytes forsteri
Scientific Family: Spheniscidae (Penguins)

Habitat: These penguins are one of the few species that are most at home in the bitterest cold of the barren Antarctic ice shelves and adjacent seas, open areas that reach as low as -80 degrees Fahrenheit (-62 degrees Celsius). Nesting colonies are usually near iceberg and rock outcroppings that provide some shelter from cutting winds.

Range: Emperor penguins stay within their preferred Antarctic habitats year-round, though there may be some slight migration between nesting areas and more productive hunting regions, depending on where food sources are most abundant.

Despite their isolation in their Antarctic range, emperor penguins are very familiar to birders and non-birders alike, thanks to their popularity in aquariums and zoos, as well as features in movies such as Happy Feet and March of the Penguins. These large, barrel-shaped birds have the classic tuxedo-like plumage that is often associated with penguins, with a sleek black back and creamy pale underparts. Just a smudge of yellow-orange marks the cheek and a pale peach-pink grin patch contrasts with the black bill. They have thick, black feet and stubby tails, and their wings are efficient flippers not only in the water, but also to steer and propel the birds across the snow on their bellies.

Emperor penguins are elegant, stoic birds, enduring some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Their chicks – fluffy balls of gray down with black-and-white faces – are enchanting, and these birds have attracted the attention of conservation efforts worldwide. Fortunately, they are not considered threatened or endangered, but they are at risk from climate change that reduces the Antarctic ice these birds depend on for nesting. Water temperature and ocean current changes also impact food availability and feeding success, which can devastate breeding colonies if adult birds are not able to adequately nourish their chicks.

Penguins of all species are great birds to start a new year, but I have special fondness for the emperor penguin because it is such a fine ambassador for penguins and all Antarctic birds. At a time when we’re all thinking of new year’s resolutions, remember the emperor penguin and its stoic resistance to the icy Antarctic winds, its dedication to family with its patient chick care and shared parental duties, and its colonial behavior. We all have to withstand our own winds – the trials and tribulations of life that will test our resolve throughout the year. Being dedicated to your goals, whether they be family, work or personal, and being patient as you work to achieve them is also key. And above all, we need help to survive – just as emperor penguins share parental duties and stay in colonies year-round, we need to remember, cherish and lean on our own family, friends and those who care about us through the year (something this one-woman show needs to work on a great deal).

Happy New Year to us all, and may 2018 be the year of the emperor penguin for all our birding and non-birding resolutions alike!

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