Nine Astounding Antarctica Bird Facts
Antarctica is a fantastic cruise destination for birdwatchers. There are some 46 different species for you to check off your wish-list, with over 100 million individuals coming together on our southern continent to breed along the coastlines and offshore islands every year.
With that many birds on the horizon there’s no way we can brief you on them all (although we try to with our specially-made wikis). So here are nine fascinating facts to whet your Antarctic appetite.
1. The name “penguin” is from two old Welsh names meaning “white head”.
Seafarers in past centuries evidently were thinking of the flightless (now extinct) great auk of the North Atlantic, which had white on its head. Penguins and great auks resemble one another, but otherwise are unrelated.
2. Emperor penguins have no nests.
While standing on sea ice they incubate one egg on their webbed feet, holding it against their brood patch. The male emperor fasts for up to 3 months during the coldest part of the winter and takes entire responsibility for the 65-day incubation period.
3. The Adélie penguin is the most abundant and studied of Antarctica’s penguins.
The male, too, has a long fasting period of up to 7 weeks when he loses as much as 40 percent of his body weight. The fast starts on his return to the rookery after winter in the pack ice, continuing through part of the incubation period, which he shares with his mate. The female lays two eggs, which take about 35 days to hatch.
4. Flipper bands are the only safe way to band penguins, but they have to be put on by an expert aware that the flipper will double its width during the moult.
Over 45,000 Adélies were flipper banded in a long-term study by Johns Hopkins University biologists. Look for them on the left flipper.
5. As far back as 1948 it was discovered that Adélie parents recognized their chicks in crèches of 200 or more similar-looking, down covered youngsters.
They feed their own chick(s), no others. Recognition is mostly by sound. This recognition between parents and their young is now recognised in many colonial seabirds.
6. The six species of albatrosses and 23 species of petrels, like the Emperor penguin, lay only one egg.
Southern black-backed gulls, imperial shags, and sheathbills have large clutches. They often lay three, occasionally four eggs.
7. We think of migration as north/south oriented but birds are actually avoiding the cold winter in favour of (only slightly) warmer summers of the opposite Polar Region.
It sounds like the birds are being quite silly, doesn’t it? They’re trading one cold spot for another that is only marginally warmer. Why don’t migratory Antarctic birds just hit some place closer to the Equator when it’s time to breed?
As it turns out, the Polar Regions have massive ecosystems. Massive ecosystems mean that there’s a lot of food to be found, especially when compared to more tropical locations. All that food can make the difference between the life and death of a species when they have a new generation of youngsters that they have to train to feed themselves.
The Wilson’s storm petrel (one of the most abundant birds on earth but breeding only in Antarctica) does this. It migrates to the Northern Hemisphere where it can be seen in great numbers in August in the North Atlantic.
8. The Arctic tern does the opposite, fleeing the arctic winter to continue its 24-hour daylight summer routine in the Antarctic pack ice.
This seabird is reputed to fly a round trip of 22,000 miles a year and enjoy an average of 22 hours daylight throughout its life.
9. However, the giant petrel and the wandering albatross circumnavigate the southern ocean.
The giant petrel in particular soars in the west wind zone. Banding research has shown that the young do not return to their natal breeding places until at least 6 years old.
These 9 tidbits are of course just the tip of the bird-fact iceberg. While we encourage you to dive into the wikis to chase down further Antarctic facts no amount of reading is truly going to prepare you for the sight (and sound and smell) of thousands of birds coming together to form a breeding colony. The only way to truly enjoy such a spectacle is to get yourself to Antarctica.