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Few Are More Aware of Penguins than Jack Child

By Mike Unger

Photo: Jack Child with penguins

Jack Child visited Antarctica 13 times.

Happy Penguin Awareness Day. Wait — you didn’t know January 20 was dedicated to our cuddly-looking feathered tuxedoed friends?

Don’t fret, neither did Jack Child, and he knows more about the 17 species of penguin than most people in the world.

While penguins are not this American University language professor’s field of study, his fascination with Antarctica—he’s been there 13 times—has fostered within him a great respect for and knowledge of penguins. He sat down with American Today to share a little of each.

Q: When and why were you originally drawn to penguins?

Child: The first time I saw them in the wild. They’re very attractive animals. Some are quite beautiful. They socialize, you can sit there and watch them interact. They pair off as a breeding pair and one parent, male or female, doesn’t matter, goes into the water, gets food and feeds the smaller one. There’s kind of a paternal-maternal relationship.

Q: Do they really mate for life?

Child: It’s a long story and it’s kind of complicated. Birds have a tendency to go back to where they were born. They meet a mate in that same area, they do mate, establish a bond, and then in the winter they go north. But they go on separate vacations. When they come back, the male goes back to where the nest was and starts rebuilding the nest.

Generally the male comes in about three days before the female. The female may get lost, tired. The male being very practical says okay, she’s not coming, I’ll pick up somebody else. Now there’s a new bond. But then what happens is the first female arrives, and then there’s a fight between the two females to get the man. 

Q: Why do you think we anthropomorphize them so much?

Child: One, they walk on two feet. A few animals do that, but they do it in kind of a comical sort of way. They kind of waddle back and forth. I think we admire their beauty.

The normal penguin has white in the front, black in the back, and looks like a man in a tuxedo. You can say there’s a man in a tuxedo slightly drunk walking around all dressed up.

Q: Do they fly?

Child: Of course everybody says no. But they do — they fly under water. They evolved from flying birds. In the water they use the same motion, the same muscles that flying birds use. Except their bones are far heavier and their wings are much firmer, much more suited to paddling.

Q: When you visit these areas, how many penguins gather together?

Child: They will congregate in groups [rookeries] up to a million, and that’s an impressive sight. And therein comes the downside. They smell. They eat krill, and krill smells when it’s alive. When it’s dead and been passed through a penguin, it really smells.

Q: How are penguins doing in the wild today?

Child: Not as well as they used to. Their big problem is global warming. What’s happening is the patterns of the animals that feed on the krill are changing. They’re very confused. They go to where they used to be able to eat and there’s nothing there. So the rookeries are getting smaller. I can see that in return visits.

Q: Are they only found in Antarctica?

Child: No. Most of the species are, but they’re also found in South Africa, New Zealand, southern South America, and believe it or not on the equator at the Galapagos Islands. The reason for that is there’s a cold current that comes up the west coast of South America.

Q: Who are their enemies in the wild?

Child: First of all, not humans, and that’s why they don’t have any problems with humans coming close. Their enemies are basically two. One is a leopard seal. The other one is a bird called a skua. It’s a bird of prey. You can see them going around a rookery looking for sick penguins, old penguins, or penguins who have been abandoned. Dangerous in a sense for humans, because if they see you walking through a rookery they might think you’re a penguin. They do sometimes come down and hit you on the head. The solution to that is you take your hat and put it on your cane, and they think therefore that that’s the head, and they go for that.

Q: So why are penguins important in the broader scheme of things?

Child: In a way they’re not. But you’ve got to admire the fact that these penguins live in some of the roughest places on the earth. It’s also a canary in the mineshaft in the sense that they’re telling us that things are changing, and this could be problematic.

They amuse, they please, movies are produced about them that people are attracted to. In that sense, I suppose you can take any one species and if it disappears, the world continues, but it will be sad if they disappear.