Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pengins! =)

Who doesn't love penguins?! I can't think of any major anti-penguin groups operating in the world at the moment, and people don't eat penguins, right? So I think it's safe to assume that writing about them here will not only serve to keep my legions of current readers happy, but perhaps to attract millions of new fans to my blog. ;) (By the way, a quick Google search for "anti-penguin" did yield this weirdness.)

I don't want to talk about emperors, those penguins who march across Antarctica (though you should probably watch the 30-second version of that movie re-enacted by bunnies here), and I don't have much to say about rockhoppers (the ones who apparently compete in surfing competitions). Instead, I would rather fill you in on the cutest and tiniest of the penguins- the little blue ones! =)

Little blue penguins are known as fairy penguins in Australia and as kororā to the Maori people of NZ. They belong to the genus Eudyptula (Greek for "good little diver"), and they only live down here in the southern hemisphere, so you'll have to come and visit us if you want to see some. =) I have met some of these little guys, and boy are they cute! =) At 16 inches, they are the teensiest of the 17-20 modern penguin species, while the emperor is the largest at about 3'7". (The largest extinct species of penguin we know of is called Nordenskjoeld's Giant Penguin, who lived roughly 40 million years ago and whose fossils have been found here in NZ. He was a big guy- taller than me (close to 6 feet tall!) and way fatter (200 lbs)!)

Little blue penguins usually live for about 7 years, but some individuals have been known to live for over 20! They spend their nights in cosy nests in sheltered rock crevices or dug-out burrows and spend their days out in the sea hunting for yummy food like squid, plankton, krill, and anchovies. (Mmm... krill...) At dusk they all come home with full bellies, usually in groups (called rafts) so they're better protected against predators like seals, killer whales, and large gulls. (Some penguins opt for more urban accommodation and build their nests under buildings and stacks of timber. Also, they have no problem accepting the artificial nest boxes that humans sometimes build for them. I'm totally going to put one in the backyard and see if any penguins come to live with us.)

Breeding begins around age 3. They're monogomous (like me!) and return to the same burrow every year to breed (not like me)! They lay 2 eggs at a time, which take about 5 weeks to hatch, and males and females take turns incubating the eggs and caring for the babies. (Very egalitarian. I like that.) They can lay up to 3 sets of eggs per season. After about 2 months of hanging out in the nest and being fed regurgitated food, the chicks have lost their down have grown waterproof feathers like their parents. They naturally know how to swim and are ready to fend for themselves, so their parents kick them out of the nest. They disappear from the colony for at least a year, but will return to the same site to breed, usually within a few metres of where they were raised.

Here in Christchurch you can see some of these guys at the Antarctic Centre, though I'm pretty sure they don't actually live in the Antarctic- it's too cold for tiny penguins down there! They have a small colony living in captivity at the Centre, most of whom wouldn't survive very well in the wild due to various conditions and injuries. Here's a picture of Elvis, who is blind and does a lot of singing. I'm not sure why she's standing on one foot. (All of the other penguin pix here are from the Centre, too.) They live all over the place around the South Island- apparently they're fairly easy to see in the wild, though I still haven't managed to spot any! (We did see a yellow-eyed penguin in the wild, though, and that's far more rare! There are only about 4,000 of those in the world compared to about a million little blue ones!)

So, in conclusion, little blue penguins are short, blue, and very cute. You should come to New Zealand some time so you can meet some. The end. =) (P.S. If you enjoyed reading about the penguins here, you might want to take a look at the similar work done by Julian and Charles from Anderson's Creek Primary school in Australia- they have excellent illustrations on their page.)

UPDATE: September 2010: Ancient giant penguin unearthed in Peru! And he wasn't black (or blue) and white! See story here.