Monday, April 14, 2008

The most popular, but unbirdlike, bird

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birds, natural history

Behold the most populous penguin! Half of the 50 million penguins on Earth are macaroni penguins. Their name is derived from their foppish appearance; in colonial times, "macaroni" meant overdressed in an Italian style that was common at the time (thus Yankee Doodle called his decorative feather, Macaroni).

Wayne Lynch's Penguins of the World, though a mini-coffee-table-size book, seems to small to hold all the information he conveys. Perhaps a quarter of the space is taken up with lovely photography of all species of penguin, doing any number of penguiny things.

In all, there are seventeen penguin species, ranging from the emperor penguin, the size of a preteen at 30kg or so, to the raven-size little penguin, which weighs about 1kg. But be warned: weight figures for a penguin are highly variable. Nearly all penguins endure one or two extended fasts each year, one during molting and the other during incubation of eggs. Many lose as much as half their body weight. That'd be like my weight fluctuating from 90kg to 45kg, every single year. Talk about a binge/diet cycle!

The most abundant penguin is not the most familiar. Honors for favorite "penguin look" go to young emperor penguins, and the classic "tuxedo" penguin look to their parents. All penguin young look quite a bit different from adults, probably to mute aggression and evoke caring behavior.

It is interesting that this most popular of birds should be so unbirdlike. Very few people have seen a penguin fly, because they only do so underwater. A few other birds can fly underwater, but they all fly in air also. Not penguins. Penguins have very short legs and waddle rather than walk, when they are not tobogganing (which uses ¼ the energy). Some penguins, mainly emperor and adelie penguins, never touch land, only "landing" on ice when they are not in the water.

Dr. Lynch's book covers the life cycle and natural history of penguins from end to end. They are amazing birds, and this is an amazing book, as beautiful as it is well written and comprehensive.

The images above are from the Wikipedia Commons, and originals can be found here and here.

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