So often when people think of penguins, they picture the icy landscape of Antarctica. Yet only four of seventeen penguin species come ashore in Antarctica — while all live in the Southern Hemisphere, most do their breeding in non-icy places, from the little penguins of Australia to the tropical Galápagos penguins, to the Magellanic penguins of South America, who can also be found in the Falklands, like this little guy I saw on Saunders Island this winter (he’s not nearly as agile on the rocks as the local, and very aptly named, rockhopper penguins!).
There are many wonderful places in the world to see penguins, but one of the most breathtaking is in the Chubut Province of Argentina, which features the largest Magellanic colony in the world, with more than 200,000 breeding pairs. These penguins come ashore at Punta Tombo every autumn to build nests, meet or reunite with their mates, and raise their chicks.
Studying and protecting these birds is important for so many reasons — for one, the more we know about penguins, the more we know about the state of our oceans, and the better job we can do taking care of the planet and all its wildlife.
January 20 is Penguin Awareness Day. Why celebrate a day of penguin awareness, you may be wondering — and how?
There are 17 species of penguins throughout the world, and penguin awareness is important because these incredible birds face increasing threats every day, worldwide, from pollution to overfishing to climate change. Click here to learn about the most pressing threats to penguins and how you can help.
Another way to help penguins is through citizen science — visit Penguin Watch, and you can take part in ongoing Antarctic penguin research. You can help researchers by annotating images, without ever leaving your desk (though these amazing photos will make you feel as though you’ve traveled around the world).
Check out the Penguin Sentinels organization, a collaboration between the University of Washington, Global Penguin Society, Province of Chubut, and the La Regina family of Punta Tombo, Argentina, and is dedicated to research, conservation, and education. In addition to working at the Punta Tombo colony for more than 30 years, this group also does great work in the Galápagos Islands.
Learn about another penguin program at The Penguin Counters, which follows researchers on their Antarctic penguin-counting journeys.
And, if you’re crazy about penguins, check out the book Penguins: Natural History and Conservation, which offers an in-depth look at all 17 species of penguins and the challenges they face…and help ensure they’re around for generations to come.
And, a million thanks to Scribner for this delightful image of an Adelie penguin with MY LAST CONTINENT (which is about two penguin researchers working in Antarctica).
He’s a unique bird in so many ways, and beloved even by those who have never met him. He got his name the year he decided to nest under a Ford Turbo instead of in a burrow or under a bush like most of his species. And while most penguins will scurry away at the sight of humans, Turbo would walk right up to you, and he even liked being patted on the head (which made the neighbor cats a little jealous).
Each year, I eagerly await news from the penguin program about what’s new the colony, but especially for news of Turbo. There’s a lot going on with the Magellanic colony where he lives — the colony is in decline due to such factors as oil pollution, overfishing, and climate change — but hearing news of Turbo each season gives me hope that these magnificent birds will make it in the end.
Researchers believe that Turbo is now about 11 years old. This season, he found himself a wonderful nest in a big molle bush, and we’re all hoping this will help him find a mate. (Yes, he’s still single after all these years.)
This was in 2006, and back then it had been about 15 years since the previous census. A small group of volunteers, we counted all the penguins in 731 circles (in teams of two, we counted all the nests, birds, and eggs within five-meter circles spaced about twenty meters apart) and discovered that there were 155,000 nesting pairs at Punta Tombo.
This colony has been studied for about 30 years, and unfortunately, the number of active nests at Punta Tombo has decreased by about 1 percent each year. Reproduction was better than average this past season, but there were fewer active nests, which means fewer chicks fledged than in most years. The main cause of chick death was, as usual, starvation — due to overfishing, penguins have trouble finding food close to the colony, and when they have to go farther for food, it’s more likely they won’t make it back in time to feed their hungry chicks. Climate change has also affected the penguins — one rainstorm this season killed 3% of the chicks from a 100-nest area.
Like these two lovebirds nesting above, many penguins mate for life — and the research being done will help us figure out how best to help them survive on the long term.