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Galapagos Penguins

Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve been told that Polar Bears live in the Northern Hemisphere and that penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere. Consequently, the two species never meet in the wild. Then yesterday, while shopping for Christmas cards, I saw a card with polar bears and penguins standing in front of a Christmas tree. Now I don’t know what to think. Are penguins sometimes found in the Northern Hemisphere or was the Christmas card lying to me?

– Rachel, Milford, MA


Look, Rachel,

Christmas cards never lie. I squabble with a lot of people and disagree with many institutions, but I never go against Christmas cards. There’s too much at stake. I don’t mind arguing that Blue Jays are actually good birds or that cats are really sent to us by the devil, but I don’t want to get Christmas mad at me. In fact, I think it’s smart that you are shopping for your cards now. Many people send their cards at the last minute and those late cards lose their impact. But if you send your cards now, in early October, not only will they garner more attention, but I’m sure they will totally impress Santa…and isn’t that the thing that matters the most?

My Christmas worship aside, it turns out that the card you saw wasn’t 100% wrong, just 99.99999% wrong. For years I, too, thought that penguins were strictly Southern Hemisphere birds, but apparently there’s a loophole in this law. Movies such as March of the Penguins have given us the impression that penguins live and breed in snow banks or on floating icebergs. But for the most part penguins breed on dry land, just like most birds do. And to further bust their frozen image, many penguins live where the weather is warm and balmy, including such places as Australia and Africa. Yes, Africa. Then there are the Galápagos Penguins, birds that live on Darwin’s famous Galápagos Islands. Things are pretty warm in the Galápagos, which is off the coast of Ecuador, a country so named because the Equator runs through it. The Galapagos Islands also sit on the Equator, so when one of these little penguins goes for its morning swim and turns right, it is swimming in the Southern Hemisphere. But, if the same penguin should turn left, it will now be swimming in the Northern Hemisphere, home of the polar bears. See, your Christmas card was right. Of course, the nearest wild polar bear is still 4,500 miles away, but you never know. The way things are going, the Equator might soon be cooler than the Arctic.

Galápagos Penguins are not only the most northerly penguins, but they are also the rarest. Isolation has made the Galápagos Islands unique, but the isolation has also made it hard on the wild inhabitants. The creatures are at the mercy of fluctuating food supplies (and local takeout options are extremely limited). Cold-water currents have been carrying fish and other nutrients to the islands for thousands of years. But sometimes, because of El Niño, or whatever, the currents don’t bring the food and when this happens the birds don’t breed. The penguins are smart enough not to have babies if they can’t feed them (a lesson that many humans have yet to learn). Conversely, during the years when food is abundant, the birds will get busy and have a second and even a third brood. Unfortunately, lean years have become all too frequent and the Galápagos Penguin population has dropped to fewer than 500 birds and that’s not a lot. (By comparison, the Macaroni Penguin, a bird that has one of the most delicious, carb-loaded names in the bird world, has a population of over ten million.) In addition to food shortages, nesting Galápagos Penguins have to deal with predators such as hawks, snakes and domestic dogs. (Yes, even on the isolated Galápagos, too many dogs have become an issue.) There is a bit of good news, however. Recently, the life-giving currents have swung back towards the islands. As a result, the penguin population is growing again. 🙂

I think most folks are aware that the creatures on the Galápagos Islands tend to be rather tame and tolerant of people. We’ve all seen photos of tourists standing next to those giant tortoises or sitting alongside the comical Blue-footed Boobies. With that in mind, I started wondering if the penguins were also tame. After a quick search online, I discovered that the answer is definitely yes. I found dozens of photos and home videos of tourists swimming with the penguins, which made me realize how adorable they are (the penguins, not the tourists). On land the penguins stumble around awkwardly, looking like drunken black and white bowling pins. But in the water the birds were fluid, graceful and totally entertaining. One video featured a penguin that was so amusing I must have watched it twenty times. And just because the clip also included a lady swimming past the camera in a bikini had nothing to do with why I watched it over and over. I just like doing research.

Despite it being 99.99999% inaccurate, I still think you should buy that penguin/polar bear card, Rachel. There’s nothing wrong with a little fantasy at Christmas. Speaking of fantasy, I think it’s time to watch that swimming penguin video again. Thorough “research” is very important to me.