Think Fast: What Bird Is This?

A bird of superlatives, emperor penguins diver deeper, hold their breath longer, and endure colder, more hostile weather than any other bird. (Photo courtesy Ink Dwell)
An extreme close-up shows the detail required to capture the different textures on this iconic bird’s plumage. (Photo courtesy Ink Dwell)

The Bird

Hero and villain, mascot and movie star, the penguin captures the imagination unlike any other bird. They are our avian counterparts. Upright and bipedal, they look like us. Monogamous, devoted parents, they behave as we do. We celebrate their strengths, parody their shortcomings, and make them the subject of our myths. In studying penguins, we learn about ourselves.

On the Wall of Birds—a 70′ x 40′ mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology depicting the 375-million-year evolution of birds—an emperor penguin stands at attention. Topping four feet and 100 pounds, the animal represented is among the largest of its species, tall enough to stare an adolescent child in the eye.

The mural depicts the 375 million year evolution of birds, showing 271 species drawn to scale. It will be the only one in the world showcasing all the families of modern birds in one place. (Image courtesy Ink Dwell)

Emperors are the heroic embodiment of parenthood. After waddling some 75 miles, males winter on the Antarctic tundra without food, enduring temperatures of minus 40°F (which is also -40°C) and hurricane-force winds, incubating their eggs. Four months later, the female returns to raise the hatchling, her mate returning to sea.

Their plumage—high-density feathers adapted for swimming, not flight—allows for anthropomorphic ambiguity. Are they wearing the black masks of crooks? Or the regal couture of heroes? Cast as villains, penguins antagonize Wallace and Gromit and battle Batman. As protagonists, they appear on the silver screen as surfers, dancers, and mutinous sailors who usher their animal friends to freedom on Madagascar.

Celebrated in both the Academy Award-winning documentary “March of the Penguins” and the animated film “Happy Feet,” the emperor penguin holds the unique designation —> Read More