Bird Watcher's General Store

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Do Penguins Have Knees?

Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve just discovered your website and have enjoyed reading your information about birds. Someone in my office told me that penguins don’t have knees? That would explain why they walk the way they do. Is it possible that they really don’t have knees?

-Elvira, Montreal, Quebec, Canada


Tough One Elvira,

Your question isn’t tough. The problem is that you are from Quebec. I’m worried that I’ll have to answer this question in both English and French? If I do, then it is going to be tough on me because I only had three months of French class. That was back when I was in junior high school and that was at least ten years ago, maybe more. I’m not sure if I can write this whole thing in French. Heck, sometimes even English is tough for me. Many people don’t know it, but English is my second language. The problem is I don’t have a first language, but I think that’s pretty obvious.

Ever since that movie “March of the Penguins” came out, we have been getting a load of penguin questions. Are they really birds? Can any of them fly? How fast can they swim? What do they eat? Which came first, the penguins or the nuns? But you are the first person to ask about them having knees. It’s nice to know that you guys are discussing birds in your office. Here, where our staff is supposed to be talking about birds, the two most often asked questions are “What’s for lunch?” and “What’s for lunch?” But not always in that order.

The answer to your question is oui, of course penguins have knees. If they didn’t have knees, they wouldn’t be able to move on land, or lower themselves to sit on their eggs or play the spoons. Did you ever think of that up there in Montreal? Hmm?

The knees on the penguin are hidden under the bird’s feathers, protected from the crazy antarctic cold. I have to agree that the way penguins waddle along it seems as if they don’t have knees, but their silly looking walk is the result of having very short legs and not from a lack of knees. Of course, being a few pounds on the chunky side doesn’t much help them with their stride either.

Here’s a way to get a sense of what it’s like to walk with short penguin legs. While you are there in the office, Elvira, and the boss has gone over to Tim Horton’s for a croissant, take a tennis ball, or in your case a hockey puck, and place it between your knees. Now try to walk around. You’ll be waddling much like a penguin, only without the fish smell.

Penguins, of course, are totally flightless birds. Other flightless birds, like the ostrich or the emu, have long powerful legs. Even very poor flyers like the roadrunner have legs that can instantly carry them away from danger. Penguins, on the other hand, have legs that seem to be used for entertainment purposes only. They are short, stubby and barely get the job done. But they do get the job done and that’s all that penguins care about.

It is actually a good thing that they have short stubby legs. Penguins are, of course, seabirds. Long legs would only cause drag underwater and slow them down. The birds propel themselves with their flipper-like wings. They use their legs and feet to help with the steering and that’s it.

There is no bird in the world that can match a penguin’s swimming ability. The loons, the puffins, the eiders, even Sponge Bob are all in the minor leagues when compared to the masters of the sea. What makes the penguins so good? All of the aforementioned birds are able to fly. Their wings still have flight feathers. Penguins decided that if they have to be in the ocean most of their lives, then they might as well go for it all and quickly turned their wings into powerful flippers. And by “quickly” I mean over several million years, which is still faster than the response time from FEMA.

Not only are penguins champion swimmers, they are the top divers too. To save on weight most birds have hollow bones, but penguins have solid bones, which helps them with their deep dives. Emperor Penguins have been reported to dive as deep as 1,700 feet, which is nearly twice the height of the Empire State building or over three times the height of Shaquille O’Neil.

Thanks for the question, Elvira. Keep talking about birds up there in Montreal. If you ever get to Cape Cod, please stop in for a visit; although we’ll all probably be at lunch.