Running Commentary 8/7/2023
8 min read

Running Commentary 8/7/2023

Penguin Week, Adélie Penguin


It's Penguin Week! As I said last week, I've accumulated a bunch of penguin-related articles to feature in the Curation Links, so I decided to just post them all in one go, and to feature a penguin as Bird of the Week besides, and just make a theme of it, like Shark Week. I did have a friend suggest that, rather than being the sharks of birds, penguins are the turtles of birds: round, awkward on land but speedy in the water, and more prone to biting than would be expected. I can see it.



Okay, so I didn't watch anything with penguins this week. There's a lot out there, though, mostly nature documentaries or children's stuff (I'll mention one of those later). I can actually name a lot more penguin-based kids' movies than I watched growing up. I only really saw two: Scamper the Penguin, an American re-cut of a late-eighties Soviet cartoon that my family had on VHS for some reason (it's half an hour long; I remember it being basically fine); and Happy Feet, which was a very hyped-up feature-length kids film about a penguin who dances even though penguins are only supposed to sing, and which was made by the same guy who did the Mad Max films, weirdly, and which did get a sequel, which I didn't see, and which I don't remember particularly fondly. I do remember it; I saw it because the Meijer supermarket in the next town over showed it for free in their parking lot one night, giving out popcorn and raisins. Y'know how when you're a kid stuff just kinda happens to you, but then when you're older you look back and think That's not what usually happens? The night I watched Happy Feet is one of those.

Anyway, I also didn't watch Star Wars: Visions this week. If there'd been a short in any way penguin-related, I would have, but there wasn't, and this is Penguin Week. As it stands, I have two more shorts to go, and with the delay here I'll have a short left for each week before Ahsoka starts, so that works out.

Bird of the Week

It's Penguin Week, so here's a penguin. Here's the penguin, arguably. When most people think of penguins, they think of plump, black-and-white birds with flippers instead of wings, living in Antarctica. The fact that some penguins are gray or blue rather than black and the fact that most penguins live somewhere well away from Antarctica aren't facts well understood by most people. The stereotypical penguin is not the typical penguin. Still, there is one such bird, tuxed0-plumaged, tuna-shaped, and Antarctic: the Adélie Penguin.

Adélie penguins are one of three members of what could be called the stereotypical penguin genus, along with the gentoo and chinstrap penguins, and they are the only ones to live primarily in Antarctica. Of course, when I say they live in Antarctica, I mean mostly in the waters off the coast of Antarctica, penguins being generally sea-going birds. Adélie penguins are eaters of krill, the catch-all classification of clouds of small invertebrates that also sustain the largest of the whales. Adélie penguins only spend much time out of the water to lay eggs and raise young, which they do on the stony beaches of the continent, and to molt, which they do on ice floes.

With a population of ten million mature individuals and growing, distributed all the way around Antarctica, the Adélie penguin is among the most common and widespread penguin species, and a consistently familiar sight to Antarctic travelers, and a beloved one. In 1922, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a British sailor and explorer who had been a part of Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova expedition (a race against Roald Amundsen of Norway to be the first to reach the South Pole, which cost Scott and several others their lives), wrote a book about his experience in the Antarctic bluntly entitled The Worst Journey in the World. But even in this bleak work Cherry-Garrard can't help but remember his first penguin sighting fondly:

Hardly had we reached the thick pack, which prevailed after the suburbs had been passed, when we saw the little Adélie penguins hurrying to meet us. Great Scott, they seemed to say, what's this, and soon we could hear the cry which we shall never forget. "Aark, aark," they said, and full of wonder and curiosity, and perhaps a little out of breath, they stopped every now and then to express their feelings, "and to gaze and cry in wonder to their companions; now walking along the edge of a floe in search of a narrow spot to jump and so avoid the water, and with head down and much hesitation judging the width of the narrow gap, to give a little standing jump across as would a child, and running on the faster to make up for its delay. Again, coming to a wider lead of water necessitating a plunge, our inquisitive visitor would be lost for a moment, to reappear like a jack-in-the-box on a nearer floe, where wagging his tail, he immediately resumed his race towards the ship. Being now but a hundred yards or so from us he pokes his head constantly forward on this side and on that, to try and make out something of the new strange sight, crying aloud to his friends in his amazement, and exhibiting the most amusing indecision between his desire for further investigation and doubt as to the wisdom and propriety of closer contact with so huge a beast."
They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children, or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt-fronts—and rather portly withal. We used to sing to them, as they to us, and you might often see "a group of explorers on the poop, singing 'She has rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, and she shall have music wherever she goes,' and so on at the top of their voices to an admiring group of Adélie penguins."...
...Two or more penguins will combine to push a third in front of them against a skua gull, which is one of their enemies, for he eats their eggs or their young if he gets the chance. They will refuse to dive off an ice-foot until they have persuaded one of their companions to take the first jump, for fear of the sea-leopard which may be waiting in the water below, ready to seize them and play with them much as a cat will play with a mouse. As Levick describes in his book about the penguins at Cape Adare: "At the place where they most often went in, a long terrace of ice about six feet in height ran for some hundreds of yards along the edge of the water, and here, just as on the sea-ice, crowds would stand near the brink. When they had succeeded in pushing one of their number over, all would crane their necks over the edge, and when they saw the pioneer safe in the water, the rest followed."
It is clear then that the Adélie penguin will show a certain spirit of selfishness in tackling his hereditary enemies. But when it comes to the danger of which he is ignorant his courage betrays want of caution. Meares and Dimitri exercised the dog-teams out upon the larger floes when we were held up for any length of time. One day a team was tethered by the side of the ship, and a penguin sighted them and hurried from afar off. The dogs became frantic with excitement as he neared them: he supposed it was a greeting, and the louder they barked and the more they strained at their ropes, the faster he bustled to meet them. He was extremely angry with a man who went and saved him from a very sudden end, clinging to his trousers with his beak, and furiously beating his shins with his flippers. It was not an uncommon sight to see a little Adélie penguin standing within a few inches of the nose of a dog which was almost frantic with desire and passion.

In Cherry-Garrard's account I think we find why penguins are so associated with Antarctica. The penguins in New Zealand, or on the Cape of Good Hope, or Tierra del Fuego are basically just weird geese, nearly-familiar creatures in familiar aquatic environments. But Antarctic penguins are different, their home being so far-off in its geography and so extreme in its meteorology that to most people it might as well be another world, one inhabited not by people but by penguins. With their upright stance and "arms" hanging to their side, penguins are the most human-looking of all birds; we may hear ourselves in parrots, but we see ourselves in penguins, especially the penguins of Antarctica, who greet us when we arrive in their world.

Among the first people to travel to Antarctica was the French naval commander Jules Dumont d'Urville, who, by the time he was dispatched to the far south, had already secured a small spot in history through his involvement in acquiring the recently rediscovered Venus de Milo for the Louvre. Captaining the Astrolabe, Dumont went further south than any but a few seal hunters had gone before. Upon finding solid ground amidst the ice, Dumont named it "Terre Adélie", after his wife, Adéle. Adélie Land was later determined to be a part of the then-much-speculated seventh continent, named Antarctica. The Adélie penguin was named after Adélie Land, though it is found all around Antarctica, not just that narrow slice which France still lays claim to. Upon returning to France Dumont was promoted to rear admiral before making history a third time, tragically, when he and his family died in France's first major rail disaster.

To science, the Adélie penguin is Pygoscelis adeliae; the genus name means "rump-legged". Pygoscelis penguins are sometimes called the "brush-tailed" penguins, from the way their stiff, duck-like tail feathers sweep over the ice as they walk.

One more thing: The Adélie penguin is, I believe, one of the main models for the title character of the Swiss animated children's program Pingu, which was made and aired throughout the 1990s. Pingu is supposedly an emperor penguin, but his red beak and white-ringed eyes are classic Adélie. The fact that none of the characters in Pingu speak any human language was perhaps meant to broaden appeal throughout Switzerland, where children may be of French, German, Italian, or Romansh-speaking households; certainly, this boosted the show's international appeal. Both the United Kingdom and Japan produced Pingu revival series.

The Molt | Eric Wagner, The Last Word on Nothing

“The molt seems to me a harsh way to close the year. Some birds only molt a few feathers at a time so they can keep living their lives more or less unaffected by the need for new plumage. Not so Magellanic penguins. Magellanic penguins undergo what is called a catastrophic molt, which means they replace all their feathers at the same time. To prepare for this involved procedure, they first leave the colony for two or three weeks to stuff themselves with food. When they return, they settle in a nest, or sometimes just a patch of open ground, and stop preening and oiling their feathers. Deprived of care and oil, the feathers soon lose their lustrous blackness, fading to brown. The colony fills with brown penguins.”

The Emperors of Fluid Dynamics | Sam Harris, Chalkdust

A look at the way a mathematical model can explain how huddles of emperor penguins stay warm in the wind. This is a great read for people with equal interest in penguins and Reimann mapping.

My Life with the Penguins | Naira de Gracia, Nautilus

Excerpted from Gracia’s The Last Cold Place: A Field Season Studying Penguins in Antarctica, a personal account of studying penguins in one of the world’s last wildernesses.

The Clockwork Penguin Dreamed of Stars | Caroline M. Yoachim, Uncanny Magazine

[FICTION] A zoo full of robotic animals remains long after the people they were made to educate have disappeared from the earth. One, a penguin, yearns to travel after them to outer space.

See the full archive of curations on Notion