National Penguin Awareness Day

Photo by John Salatas

This coming Thursday, January 20 is National Penguin Awareness Day (not to be confused with World Penguin Day in April), when penguins get a day in the spotlight. And what’s not to love? These flightless sea birds are adorable both as chicks and as adults. They waddle when they walk with their stubby wings awkwardly splayed out from their sides. And then there are the heartwarming images of male Emperor penguins huddled together against the frigid Antarctic cold with an egg nestled on top of their feet.

Depending on who you talk to, there are 17-20 different species of penguins, all in the southern hemisphere. Many of these species live in Antarctica, but not all of them live in cold climates. Some live in much more hospitable places like the Galapagos, South America, Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.

What penguins lack in agility on land, they more than make up for in the ocean. In fact, in the ocean they are expert swimmers, some reaching speeds of over 20 miles per hour. They can even leap out of the water like a dolphin as they swim! Penguins spend most of their lives in the water, which is why they sport the black and white tuxedo. When they are in the water, from above their black backs blend them into the murky depths. From below, a penguin’s white belly camouflages them against the bright sky.

The purpose of National Penguin Awareness Day is a day to bring attention to the environmental issues that penguins face (2/3 are listed as threatened), and to promote conservation and research. Learn more at Penguins International to see how you can help!

MYNA BIRDS

My new favorite bird is the myna – they are raucous and beautiful and apparently very adaptable. My love for these birds began with a tree in Hawaii. Every night, a huge flock that probably numbered into the hundreds, returned to the same tree. Over the course of an hour at sunset, they settled in and chattered away (loudly). And then, almost as if one of the mama birds said, “Hey, hush up now, it’s bedtime,” they’d fall silent. The same thing happened in reverse in the morning. At dawn, they’d slowly begin to chatter until it because a boisterous chorus. Then, one by one they’d fly away for the day.

Photo by Afsarnayakkan, 2017

I’ve since learned that they are actually an invasive species in many parts of the world, including Hawaii. But It’s not their fault they were introduced to the islands in the mid-1800s to control cutworm moths and they thrived. Today they are seen as naughty, loud, and quarrelsome. Some compare them to flying rats. They also compete with native species.

Still, my affection for them has not changed. They are a hardy and adaptable species. They mate for life with one partner. And their chatter is lovely.

HUMPBACK WHALES

Photo by Scott Moore, Maui, HI

Every fall, more than 10,000 humpback whales migrate from the north Pacific Ocean to the Hawaiian Islands (smart whales!). That journey of over 3,000 miles brings them to warmer, shallow waters to breed. Some mate during this time, with “competition pods” of males pursuing a female. They will bump into one another and jockey for position close to her, attempting to become her primary escort. Ultimately the female will mate with several males for a better chance of getting pregnant. Once she is, the gestation time is about 11 months.

For females returning to Hawaii already pregnant, it is a safe place for them to give birth because there are few predators in the shallow waters. In addition, the newborn calves have no blubber, so the warm water is essential. When born, the calves are 12-15 feet long and weigh 1-2 tons. By comparison, adult humpbacks can weigh as much as 40 tons and grow to 60 feet long.

A mother whale nurses her baby with as much as 100 gallons of milk per day. In addition, she prepares her baby and helps it grow stronger before the long migration back north in the spring. She also teaches the baby how to breach, which, in addition to slapping their fins and flukes, is how humpback whales communicate with other humpbacks. The mother does all this without eating for months.

That’s right, the whales do not eat while in Hawaii because the tropical water have much less food available. Instead, they live off the stores of blubber they built up while in the cooler productive waters up north. They return to the North Pacific in the spring, where they feed on an abundance of krill, plankton, and small fish.

No matter what ocean (because humpbacks live in oceans around the world), if you have a chance to see whales, do it…they are an extraordinary sight to behold.