It’s not an easy life we lead. And by “we”, I mean the entirety of the male penguin population.
As a male Magellanic penguin, the complexities of my life escalate the second I turn four. In a few years’ time, I’m expected to find the mate I want to spend the rest of my life with, build a nest, father children, raise a family and on top of it all, manage to not get eaten by a sea lion. Or an orca.
In honor of Penguin Awareness Day (my second favorite holiday) I want to shed some insight into the rituals, habits and traits that make me, and my kind, the very best of mates. You just might learn something.
Song and Dance
I’ll be the first to admit that this one’s tricky. It’s hard to tell that special someone they’re special, but I think the emperor penguin has us all beat. They’re no strangers when it comes to song and dance, using their loud voices to bellow shrieks and cries (songs and ballads, in your human terms) while waving and bowing their heads to capture the heart of a potential mate.
No matter if you’re singing the perfect tune, or constructing the perfect pebbled nest (Adélie penguins, overachievers), we penguins each have our own rituals to ensure our partner knows we’re the ideal spouse, and they’re our ideal mate. Often, this will entail a courtship ritual that involves bowing, braying and calling to each other for several minutes.
I believe in human speak you may call this activity words of affirmation.
It’s widely known that some of us, like macaroni and Magellanic penguins, mate for life. However, it’s not as widely known that we don’t actually spend every waking moment together. For example, the southern rockhopper penguin comes back to the same partner each year for mating season. However according to a recent study in Science Magazine (yes, I read academic articles in my free time), after the 20-30 days of mating season, they separate! Even more, partners were often separated by an average of 600km (almost 400 miles!) during the winter months, highlighting just how important it can be to maintain your own space.
One of our paramount traits as the world’s greatest partners (remember, I’m not biased, or anything) is our dedication to family. Take it from my buddy Doug, an emperor penguin. He loves his old gal Athene, and each year he will spend about 65 days withstanding the blistering winds and sub-zero temperatures of Antarctica to guard their egg while Athene hunts for the family. After two months they’ll eventually switch, but this insistent dedication and enthusiasm to protecting their young might be the key to the perfect partnership. At least, Doug and Athene definitely seem to think so.
Dress to Impress
Looks aren’t everything, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But fortunately for us penguins, we’re always dressed to the nines. Whether it’s the sharp tuxedos, or the yellow-orange forehead feather crest of the macaroni penguins, we’re guaranteed to be gussied up for any occasion. I’m not saying it takes a tux to make you the perfect partner, but it doesn’t hurt.
Finally, when the equivalent of bringing flowers is regurgitating fish remains into the mouth of your little loved ones, it might be worth noting things are a bit easier in my world. As a Magellanic penguin who grew up in the Galapagos, I know little about the frigid temperatures of the Antarctic, the razor sharp teeth of leopard seals or the best type of engagement ring. I do, however, know about love.
One of the longest recorded love affairs is between two Magellanic penguins like me, a romance of 16 years that was discovered during a 30-year study conducted on the Patagonia coastline of Argentina. While some penguins are no strangers to divorce, as serially monogamous species like emperor penguins usually find a new mate each breeding season, these two find each other every year.
So I may not be the perfect spouse, but in the animal world, we’re pretty dang close.
Oh, and happy Penguin Awareness Day.