For the Birds Radio Program: Penguin Awareness Day

Original Air Date: Jan. 21, 2002 (estimated date)

Laura just missed celebrating Penguin Awareness Day on January 20.

Audio missing


Sunday, I was blithely going through my email when I came across one of those techno greeting cards from a dear friend in Cleveland. It turns out January 20 is Penguin Awareness Day—something I’d never known. As far as I can tell, the day was named by the Jenkinson Aquarium in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, in order to promote understanding of our southern brethren.

With their upright posture and tuxedo-colored plumage, penguins feature prominently in cartoons and as the logo of a book company, and are very popular in zoos. Not one species of penguin live in all of North America, yet virtually every child knows what they are, and most little kids know the answer to the question, “Why don’t polar bears eat penguins? Because polar bears are only found in the northern hemisphere and penguins only in the southern.

According to most taxonomists, there are seventeen species of penguins on the planet, although depending on how they deal with subspecies and superspecies, there are some taxonomists who put the number as low as 15 or as high as 21. Only a few are exhibited in zoos–to find some, you need to visit remote parts of tiny islands off South America, New Zealand, or Antarctica. Some penguins prefer more temperate conditions, living as far north as Peru and Argentina. And the Galapagos penguin lives right on the equator. Penguins range in size from the enormous Emperor Penguin, standing over 3 feet tall and weighing up to 90 pounds, down to the diminutive Little Penguin, only 18 inches tall and weighing just over 2 pounds.

Because of their fishy diets and the extraordinary stench of their breeding grounds, penguins are pretty much unpalatable for human consumption, but because they are flightless and mostly unafraid of people, they’ve still been vulnerable to humans killing them since Captain Cook returned from his explorations of the Antarctic region in 1774 and told people about the abundance of resources in the extreme south. After people decimated the whale populations, they turned to penguins as a smaller but easier source of oil—an average penguin, boiled down, can produce about a pint of fuel oil. In the 1800s, people boiled down a lot of penguins. A single ship in 1867 collected more than 50,000 gallons of penguin oil from the Falkland Islands, representing the slaughter of nearly a half a million birds in one season. People also ate penguin eggs, in 1897 taking almost three quarters of a milion eggs from African penguin colonies near the Cape of Good Hope. And guano collectors stripped nitrogen-rich soil from the breeding grounds, leaving some burrowing species nowhere to breed. People as a species have not advanced since those days, but fortunately societies have, and now penguins have far more legal protections than they used to. Although a few penguin species are badly endangered, for the most part they’ve recovered some of their numbers and are doing well.

Roger Tory Peterson, who is most famous for writing his Field Guide to the Birds, was singularly devoted to penguins. A Swede whose seafaring ancestors came from the far north, Peterson must have found kindred spirits in these creatures that can survive more severe conditions than any other warm-blooded animals. He wrote:

Others see little clowns, ridiculous dwarfs, little people dressed in feathers. But they are far from that. They are highly specialized birds dedicated to penguinism, a life molded by the cold, impersonal sea, harsh climate, and the crowded colonies in which they reproduce.

Penguin Awareness Day is over for another year, but there’s nothing wrong with celebrating a cool bird–and I mean cool literally–even when it’s not its day.