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Snuffle of the Penguins

Saturday, January 28, 2006

These are king penguins, but hey, I was lucky to have a Zick painting of any penguin!

We spent the evening on the couch with the kids, watching March of the Penguins. Like its predecessor, Winged Migration, parts of it bugged me. I wanted badly to know how an emperor penguin stores food to feed a chick for two months while its mate is away, stuffing itself on fish, squid and crustaceans. Does it manufacture the food, from fat stores? Well, apparently, the male penguin, who has fasted for 5-6 months, is able to keep the chick alive for up to two weeks after hatching on a curdlike substance he secretes in his esophagus, like pigeon milk. But then the picture gets muddy. When the female comes back from her march across the ice, having been gone for the entire 8-week incubation period, she's got a bellyful of fish and other sea life. Does she somehow preserve an enormous crawful of food for two months, doling it out bit by bit while the father penguin's out fishing? I have a hard time understanding how this would be possible, but must find out. The National Zoo's website had the best information I found, but I still don't get how a penguin can keep fish and squid good in its stomach for a couple of months, if it's feeding its chick by regurgitation. It has to be digesting it, and then producing the food, like a pigeon does. Arrgh. Need to know.

Beyond my typical just-gotta-know attitude, which pretty much ruined Winged Migration for me, I was taken by surprise by this film; it snuck up on me and I had to go get my own personal box of Kleenex. The penguins' struggle just seemed insurmountable. The likelihood of one mate's getting killed, which would force the mate who stayed home to leave the chick to starve, was crushing. That the male emperor penguin memorizes his newly-hatched chick's voice, and then finds that chick two months later by voice, killed me. And the baby penguins pushed every maternal button I possess. They are cute on the rocks, those things. I'm continually amazed that the concept and execution of cute crosses so many phyla. Wonder if a penguin would think a human infant or Boston terrier puppy was cute?
Here's a little gentoo for you. That's all the penguins I've got, for now.

The dark-phase giant petrel that made an unannounced cameo to kill penguin chicks (nobody needs to know what kind of bird this is, I guess, just that it's a very bad bird) was a special thrill for Bill and me and a terror for the kids. Phoebe and Liam had their heads under the covers more than once during the movie. No wonder; as the penguins huddled together under vicious drifts of blowing snow, their mother was blubbering quietly away, covered in a drift of used Kleenex.


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