I have to confess that, with the single exception of when my daughter was one in a pantomime many years ago, I have never understood the attraction of penguins. Having spent time in the Arctic, I have long had a yearning to see the other end of the planet, but this has remained – and probably will continue to be – unfulfilled. For two reasons: primarily of course, the enormous cost, but secondly because the only opportunities for visiting the Antarctic seem to have, as their primary focus, endless encounters with endless colonies of penguins. It’s not that I don’t recognise the validity of a penguin’s existence, it’s simply that their sheer numbers and prolific excretory habits bestow on their environment an unbearable stench, and that they don’t strike me as being creatures with a compelling intelligence that invites lengthy observation. Essentially, seen one penguin, seen ‘em all. And I do realise that this is not a popular perspective – penguins have, after all, become film stars and loveable icons of their pristine (if smelly) environment. And yes, I am aware that these ungainly birds display exquisite grace underwater, and yes, I have read of the clever communal wave that that they perform to stay warm, but even so….
It was therefore with some amusement, given my views on their ranking on the IQ scale of life on earth, that I read of the emperor penguin that turned left and ended up on a beach in New Zealand – a profound navigational error that, once made, seems to have been pursued without further reflection. Now, don’t get me wrong, I certainly felt sympathy for it – even felt sorry for it – but my first reaction was mirth and a sense that my view of the position of the penguin on the tree of life’s skills was confirmed. It is surely a good thing for penguins that polar bears were destined to roam the other one – survival of the fittest would inevitably have otherwise prevailed, and penguins would have been but a fleeting aberration of evolution (unless, of course, the stench is a clever defensive mechanism that even bears could not overcome).
The bird (an adolescent, of course), now popularly christened “Happy Feet” (oh Michael, bite thy tongue…) and of so far unknown gender (how difficult can penguin-sexing be?) is, as I write, recovering after an endoscopy. It required this procedure because it had taken to eating sand.
Now many birds need to intake grit or sand to assist with the grinding process in their gizzards – and penguins are reported to pursue this activity. When humans do the same, it’s referred to as geophagy. “Bizarre stories abound of such diets. An eighty-year-old woman in India is said to eat a kilogram of sand before breakfast. Japanese inhabitants of coral reef islands are said to have eliminated the need for doctors through eating the calcium-rich sand. All this is arguably patent nonsense, but pica, from the Latin for “magpie,” is the medical term for an appetite for nonnutritional substances; it is a medical disorder.” (Welland, 2009).
But within Happy Feet was found enough sand to fill its stomach and esophagus – it had clearly gone to excess in terms of gizzard assistance, and it is suggested that, since in the Antarctic penguins eat snow and ice, perhaps the hapless creature mistook sand for snow. I rest my case.
At the time of writing, Happy Feet was reported to be recovering – and I do hope that this continues to be the case. But if, in the interim, a tragic reversal of he/she/its condition has occurred, I respectfully ask that my readers do not resign in protest.