Excerpt from the Crystal Desert: Penguins (5)

I had the pleasure of spending time with David G Campbell during a cruise to the Antarctic. I love his book and will be posting excerpts from it from time to time.

The book is called “The Crystal Desert:  Summers in Antarctica” and is published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

“A superior personal account of place, a remarkable evocation of a land at the bottom of the world (Boston Globe)


A few days later, the females arrive and are enthusiastically wooed by the property owning males. Experienced penguins seek their mates of previous years. The partnership is forged and reinforced by ritualized vocalizations and behavioral displays. During the “ecstatic” vocalization, the penguin flaps its wings, arches its neck, raises its head and, with body-wracking shudders, calls to the sky. It sounds like a cross between the bray of an ass and the honk of a goose. Edward Wilson was the first to call this behavior “ecstatic,” an anthropomorphism the rigor of modern-day ethology. In fact, the display is hardly ecstasy: males use it to anxiously advertise their territories and to attract females. early in the breeding season, when land rights are still being contested, one male’s ecstatic display often precipitates a bluster of others, which spread through the colony like a acoustical wave. Later in the season, their territorial instincts aroused by the appearance of the chicks, the females join in the braying. The sound, amplified by a thousand voices, is one of the recurring acoustical motifs of Antarctica and haunts one’s memories and dreams long after one leaves the continent.


Being short and piebald, with stubby, flat wings that flick erect in an instant, penguins are natural semaphores. It is no wonder that at least on land (and perhaps at sea as well – we just don’t know), much of their communication is visual and in black and white. Ethologists have interpreted – and reinterpreted – the meaning of these displays. each species has its own visual signature, but the general patterns are similar among the brush-tailed penguins. Adélie penguins, for example, have as many as six territorial or threat displays, four or five for courtship and mating, and some that are used for both. For a penguin, eloquence is ritual, posture, and movement. An artfully directed eye, first one side, and then the other, or a silent, unblinking sideways stare, with the head downturned and the beak cocked and ready to stab, signal bellicosity in penguin language: you’re too close to my nest, move on, get away from that pebble. Tucking the bill into the axilla of a wing and rolling the head in this position, accompanied by a low grrrr, is aggressive. These displays are much more economical than battle. But if all else fails, penguins will reluctantly, but energetically, attack: squawking, thrusting their chests and flailing their flippers, often pinning down their foe with foot and bill. I once strayed too close to a king penguin on South Georgia Island and provoked it into chasing me down the beach, punching my legs with its chest, and battering me with its sharp-edged flippers, which left bruises on my shins.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *