The Penguin by W. A. Atkinson

There are several kinds of penguins, and several different names have been given to the same kinds, so that the number of names is rather bewildering. We hear of the Great Penguin, the Grey Penguin, the Cape Penguin, the Jackass Penguin, and several others; but, as they are all very similar in most respects, we will not trouble much about the kinds, but learn what we can of the habits and peculiarities of penguins generally.

These birds live mostly in the cold countries, especially islands, near the South Pole. They are aquatic birds, spending much of their time in the water, and living upon the fish which they chase and catch in the sea. For this reason they congregate upon the rocky shores, where they may be seen standing in thousands, like regiments of soldiers. Their webbed feet are placed very far back, close to the stumpy tail, and so the long body has to stand very straight up in order to balance itself. This gives them a very odd, man-like appearance. Their wings are small and narrow, and look more like flappers, or stunted arms, than wings. They are not covered with feathers, but with stumps, which look more like bristles or scales, and the wings appear to be set on to the body almost the wrong way about. They are not of the smallest use for flying, and the penguin never attempts to do that; but when it takes to the water, the wings are seen to be admirably formed and placed for swimming.

The penguin is lighter than the water, yet it swims with its body below the surface, never at any time having more than its head out. It is enabled to do this by the peculiar shape of its wings, which will carry it down and forwards, as the wings of air-birds carry them upwards and forwards. So well fitted for swimming are these curious wings that the penguin is more than a match for most fishes in their own element. When chasing its prey, it comes to the surface with a spring, and dives again so quickly that it is almost impossible to distinguish it from a fish leaping in the air. How confident it feels upon the sea may be imagined when we learn that Sir James Ross once saw two penguins swimming calmly along a thousand miles from the nearest land.

The penguin is an enormous eater. It has a very long stomach, which reaches to the lower part of the body, and is capable, in the case of a large bird, of holding more than two pounds of fish. The largest kind of penguin may be from three to four feet tall, and will weigh about eighty pounds. This is only about half the weight of a well-developed man, so that you may judge the capacity of the penguin's stomach by doubling it and comparing it with a man's. The bird, like many other birds, appears to swallow pieces of stone to help it to grind down its food, for Sir John Ross found ten pounds of granite and other kinds of stone in the stomach of a penguin which he caught—no light weight for such a bird to carry about.

On land the penguin uses its wings as fore-legs, and crawls or runs on four feet, as it were, so quickly that, on a grassy cliff, it might be mistaken for some kind of quadruped. Living in regions which are rarely visited by man, these birds have not yet learned to dread him, but often stand still until they are knocked down with a stick. They are very courageous. A naturalist tells us how he attempted to stop one as it was going down to the sea. He intercepted it, but the bird fought him and drove him backwards step by step. Every step the bird gained it kept, standing up erect and fearless before the naturalist, and continually rolling its head from side to side. Nothing short of heavy blows, he tells us, would have stopped it.

The penguin lays one egg, of a whitish colour, about twice as large as a goose's egg. It is said that the female bird hatches its egg by keeping it close between its legs, and that if it be disturbed at this time, it will carry its egg away with it. While the female bird is hatching its egg, the male goes to the sea to catch fish for them both; and, when the young one is hatched, both parents go to sea and bring it food. They do this so well and so unselfishly that the young bird grows quite fat, and is scarcely able to walk, while the old birds themselves become thin. The young bird takes its food in a very curious way. When its mother has just returned from the sea, she stands up over her little one, and makes a great noise something between the quacking of a duck and the braying of an ass. After that has gone on for a minute or so, she puts down her head and opens her mouth, and the young one thrusts its beak in and takes out its food.

Living in such cold countries, and spending so much time in the cold water, the penguin needs to be well protected from the cold. And so it is. Its short feathers are closely packed, and form a water-proof coat. Under the skin there is a thick layer of fat, which helps to keep out the cold; and, as we have already seen, the penguin eats enormous quantities of food, much of which is no doubt used up in keeping the bird warm. Some people tell us that the penguin's flesh is not disagreeable to eat, while others say that it is far too oily to be pleasant. In Newfoundland it used to be burnt upon the fires in place of wood. The flesh is, indeed, so oily that in some places a lamp is said to be made by sticking one end of a piece of moss into the body of a dead penguin and lighting the other. The penguin's body serves as an oil-vessel, and the moss as a wick.