the mother begin their trip back, and the fathers wait it out

Naturally, once the mothers finally reach the sea, they are eager to get in. They can hold their breath for over fifteen minutes and dive to a depth of 17 hundred feet. They approach the sea floor itself to feed on fish, krill, and squid. While the mothers finally feed their empty bellies, the fathers cling to life on the surface, trying to keep the egg safe and warm.

The wind will occasionally bring snow to clench the males thirst. Other than that there is only ice, which they cannot get at. They have been without food for over three months now. Each day brings them closer to exhaustion and starvation. Eventually, some, usually the older ones, will simply fall asleep and disappear. Now it is dark almost all of the time, and major blizzards arrive. At this, the fathers make extra efforts to protect themselves from the cold. For now, there is almost only night.

The hungry mothers are not the only ones who are overjoyed to return to the sea, their predators are happy to have them back as well. The leopard seal is a major predator for the penguins. By July, the females know that it is time for them to return to the nest. So, for the third time this year, the mothers will walk back, only this time in the dark.

As for the fathers, they wait for the mothers return, and discover that the chicks are hatching. Each day more eggs will hatch, but the chicks are hungry. They need the mothers to return, the fathers are hungry too, and they have not eaten in nearly four months now. If the mother does not arrive soon, the father will be forced to abandon the child and return to sea. There is one secret weapon against the newborns huger. The father coughs up a milky substance, this tiny meal will keep the chick alive for a day, perhaps too, hopefully long enough for the mother to arrive.

What they waited for – the egg hatches

By May, the light will have nearly disappeared from the sky, and the temperature continues to drop. For those who began the journey too late, or have fallen behind because of weakness or hunger, hope of survival is now remote. A lone penguin has no chance of surviving the winters cold. He will merely fade away, absorbed by the great whiteness behind him.

As winter descends, the clan’s only defense against the freezing cold is the group itself. It is almost as if they create another organism altogether. The huddled animals create a single moving mass, one that is designed for the sole purpose of keeping warm. Winters storm is upon them. Within a few weeks, days will begin to pass with virtually no light. Moons come and go, in the soon to be endless night. Finally, one day in early June we remember why the penguins came here. The egg hatches. As Soon as it appears, it is instantly shielded from the cold. The tiny being within the shell cannot survive more than a moment’s exposure to the freezing winter air.

From now on the couple has but a single goal, to keep their egg alive. The hungry mother must return at once to the sea to eat. But before she leaves she must entrust the egg to its father. Some young couples are too impulsive and rush the egg transfer process, within moments the egg is broken, and left on the ice. Their affair is now over, the ice has claimed their egg and the life within it. With no reason to stay, these two will wander back to the sea.

The others must stay however; they first practice the egg transfer before doing so. Then, with great care they transfer the egg. Now begins one of natures most incredible and enduring role reversals. It is the father who tends to the couples single egg, while the mother feeds and gathers food for the young. It is the father who shields the egg from the violent winds and cold. He makes a nest for the egg atop his own claws, keeping it safe and warm beneath a flap of skin on his belly, and he will do this for more than two months.

The mother leaves, and the father stays

Having passed the egg to the male, the exhausted female must depart quickly. She must eat soon or she will die. As the winter progresses, the father will be severely tested. The mother will be tested as well. Her return to the sea is considerably more dangerous than the original trip to the nesting ground. It is colder now, and she will have lost almost one -third of her body weight producing the egg. She is literally starving. Of course, the fathers are nearly starving too, but for them a meal is far off in the distance. By the time their vigil atop the egg is over, the penguin fathers will have gone without food for 125 days and will have endured one of the most deadly and violent winters on earth, all for the chick.

As the fathers settle into their long wait at the breeding ground, the second storms arrive. The temperature is now about -80, and this is without taking into account the wind, which may blow at 100 miles an hour. Though the males May be aggressive during the rest of the year, at this time they are completely docile, and they act as a united and cooperative team. They brace the storms by merging their thousand bodies into a single mass, they take turns and each of them will get a chance to stand inside the middle of the huddle where it is warmer.

As the move about, the fathers will balance their eggs like tightrope walkers. On the other hand, the exhausted mothers have walked seventy miles, and are now back where they started three months ago, although they are not yet near the sea, as the winter has frozen along the shore, and they must walk several more miles before they reach the sea. To survive they must reach the new ice edge, or find a new opening, and sometimes the search will last for days.

the mothers return to their chicks

At last, the mothers are back. The penguins must find each other now. To find each other in the large couple, the penguins rely on sound, not sight. As they circle, the returning mothers trumpet loudly and wait for their mates to call back. The sounds made by all of them are deafening, and yet somehow, each of them hears their mates sound. Once the couple finds each other, the mother sees the chick for the first time.

Just as they did with the egg, the couple passes of the newborn from one to the other. Now, it is the mothers turn to protect the chick from the fierce cold. The father and the chick sing to one another, it is the only way that the two will recognize each others voices, and the only way the father will be able to find the chick when he returns.

The fathers have gone without food for over four moths, and have lost almost half of their weight. Yet still they must walk over seventy miles. Each year, some of these fathers will not make it back to the sea.

Like the sun, the chicks grow stronger every day. They are not yet ready to leave their mothers. In time, the chick will take its first steps alone. Yet winter is not over, and the last winter storm approaches. Many of the chicks will not survive it. For the mother, the pain of losing a chick seems unbearable. Every year a mother who has lost her chick will attempt to steal another, yet the group does not allow it.

Despite having known each other for only a few days, the bond between mother and chick is strong, and will only grow stronger. Once winters grip finally weakens, the chicks begin to run free. They huddle together for warmth. Winter may have ended, but the dangers have not. The chicks must be wary of predator birds like the Southern Giant Petrel.

It isn’t long before the fathers return, their bellies heavy with food. The chicks approach at once. The father listens for the call of his chick. For the next several months, the parents will take turns returning to the sea in search of food.

The best dads

The best dads – emperor penguins

These ultimate dads are the only animals to breed in the Antarctic winter. This is no small feet when the temperatures routinely drop between -31 degrees Fahrenheit. To top it all off, this sensitive male takes full responsibility for the couple’s one and only egg. He refuses to leave until the egg hatches into a healthy chick. He is of course, the largest penguin on earth, the emperor penguin.

One way to beat the icy temperatures and the polar winds is too huddle together and share body warmth. Another way is fat: a chubby dad is a healthy dad in the South Pole. Penguins need every ounce of fat to protect themselves from the unforgiving climate. Dad’s body serves him well, especially in the water. These guys know how to fish, they can dive up to 820 feet deep, as they hunt for fish, squid, and krill. They can also swim about 15 miles per hour. This is four times faster than the speediest human swimmer.

Unfortunately, a penguins body is not as graceful on land. Maybe this is why they prefer sliding around on land. He may look goofy, but the emperor penguin dad is the perfect gentleman. This sensitive male is an expert at co-parenting. And this dad goes the extra mile to give mom a break. Mom may lay the egg but its dad who hatches it. He tucks the tiny egg under his feather covered skin where it will stay snug and warm. For two months he will eat absolutely nothing and lose nearly half of his body weight. Once the hardest work is over, mom returns to give dad some relief.

She will tuck the chick into her pouch to keep the chick warm, while dad heads for the open water to break his fast and feed on the fish. However, this sensitive male still does not head out with the boys for his share of the fun. Instead, he returns to his family and shares the burden. Mom and dad take turns keeping their baby warm and well fed until he is big enough to brave the cold. It’s a high stakes game, relying on a single egg to pas on your genes. This ultimate dads parenting skills pay off, a record setting 50% of emperor chicks make it to adulthood, which is no small feet in the harshest climate on earth.

Penguins find a mate

As they walk towards their destination, each day the temperature drops a little further, and the sun sets earlier. The weather becomes noticeably harsher, almost by the hour. By now, similar clans of penguins approach from every direction to join in on the journey. Finally, often on the same day each year, and even at the same time, they arrive at the place where each and every one of them was born.

Here they mate in relative safety, they are now far from the waters edge where most predators lurk and the large ice walls will provide protection from their usual predators. The real reason they have chosen this place however lies under their feet, The ice is thicker here and stays solid until summer which will keep their young from falling through accidentally. Thus, having arrived, they begin to pursue their journeys purpose: to find a mate.

Scientists don’t really know what they are looking for in a partner; they only know that penguins do in-fact look for a certain something. They also know when the penguins have found it. Emperor penguins are monogamous, well sort of. They mate with one penguin a year, which means that next year all bets are off. Because there are fewer males than females, Hostility among the females is common. Moreover, because a taken male instantly becomes unavailable, females often attempt to interrupt courtships. The males don’t seem to mind this, they just wait for the fight to end, and take the opportunity to preen.

Within a few weeks, one way or the other, most of the animals have found who they are looking for. They mate. For the next eight months these two creatures will participate in an ancient and complicated affair. If their partnership is successful, there will be new life. For now, they wait for the egg and the brutal winter which will do everything in its power to destroy that egg.

Antartica Where the penguin lives

Antarctica, there are few places harder to get to in this world, and there aren’t any that are as hard to live in. The average temperature, here at the bottom of the earth is a balmy -58 degrees, and that is when the sun is out! It wasn’t always like this, Antarctica used to be a tropical place. It was vastly forested and teeming with life, but then the continents started to drift south, and by the time that the continent stopped drifting, the vastly forested area had been replaced with a new ground cover, ice. As for the former inhabitants, they had all died or moved on long ago, well, almost all of them
Legend has it that one tribe stayed behind. Perhaps they thought that the change in the weather was only temporary, or maybe they were just stubborn. But for whatever the reason, these tall souls refused to leave. For millions of years they have made their home in the darkest, driest, windiest, and coldest continent on earth. And they have done so alone.

Antarctica holds some 7 million cubic miles of ice, storing nearly ninety percent of the worlds ice and seventy percent of its fresh water. It’s More than two miles thick in some places. Its heavy enough to warp the shape of the earth. Lately, the frozen Continent has been heating up, giving scientists cause for concern. Global temperatures have risen about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century, but parts of Antarctica have risen about 4 degrees. While glaciers and sea ice are thinning in some parts of the world, in Antarctica it’s even more severe. Parts of the continent are surrounded by huge shelves of ice that extend from the land and float on the sea and parts of these have broken off and drifted off to sea, where they have melted. A few of these were as large as Rhode Island! The melting of these ice shelves can make a huge difference in the world’s coasts.

Emperor Penguins Hatch

August is actually the coldest month, with temperatures as low as -50 degrees Celsius, if any chicks are abandoned they will freeze within two minutes. Mortality is low however, as most of the eggs do hatch. In emperor penguins feet, the warm arteries run beside the cold veins to heat the blood before it re-enters their body. Their flippers have similar heat exchanges and in their sinuses the air they breathe out warms up the air they breathe in which recovers 80% of the heat.

During their amazing four month fast, the males have eaten only snow for its moisture; they have survived off their fat. Although the male is running on an empty stomach, each father manages to feed his chick an oily secretion from his crop. Yet relief is on its way, the females sleek with fat and full of food return from their fishing trip. Now, the once larger male is the smaller of the pair and he is 45% lighter than he once was. At the moment of greeting, the mother had left an egg but returns to a full fledged chick.

At first sight, the male does not want to give up what he has guarded for nine weeks. Yet the female is keen to take over. The changeover is quick, so that the chick does not freeze. The bond between them is so strong that the male wont leave for a day or two, by the has to go off to feed.

The parents will keep on exchanging the chicks and feeding them in-between their legs until the chicks have reached an age of three months. Now, their down jackets are thick enough. When the cold bites too deeply, the chicks will huddle just as their parents do. This is an instinctive method of survival.

A penguins ability to swim

On land, penguins are ungainly, they can’t fly and they can barely waddle around on their short legs. Yet they are one of the most successful marine species on the planet. Seventeen species of penguin survive in the wild and colonies of up to five million strong. On land, penguins would starve, there is nothing there but snow and ice. But Antarctica is surrounded by an ice cold ocean that is teaming with life. So penguins have conquered their environment by taking to the sea.

They swim well enough to catch all of the fish and crustaceans that they need. In fact they can consume enough fish to last them through their breeding season, during which the males will not eat for a hundred days. When penguins leave their land an almost magical transformation takes place, the penguin turns from a flightless bird into a formidable swimming machine speeding through the water at twenty miles per hour.

Their bodies have this thick layer of fat that keeps them warm. The waterproof feathers lie flat on a streamlined body, the webbed feet become rudders and the wings turn into powerful flippers. They also have heavy bones that allow them to stay underwater. Unlike a bird in flight, a penguin is supported by the water and does not need vertical lift. The penguin can angle its wings on each stroke to maximize the forward thrust. It surges through the water like our greatest champion swimmers, only better. Another great adaptation that they have developed is their coloring. Their back is black and their front white. When underwater, predators from above are looking at their black back and it is difficult to see them. Predators from below find it hard to spot their white underside against the light.

The penguins walk for love

The emperor penguin is technically a bird, although one that makes its home in the sea. You may wonder then, why it travels on the ice. Each year at around the same time, the penguin leaves the comfort of the sea and embarks on a remarkable journey. He travels a great distance, and though he is a bird, he won’t fly, and though he lives in the sea, he won’t swim, mostly, mostly he will walk, but he won’t walk alone.

It is March and summer is over. Another long polar winter is about to begin. The birds have been feeding in the ocean waters for about three months, now with their bellies full it is time to find a mate. Their breeding ground may be up to seventy miles away. That is where they are headed, and nowhere else will do. To get there they will walk day and night continuously, and sometimes for a week. It is a long, dangerous and seemingly impossible journey. Some of them do not survive it.
Nonetheless, when the last of their clan climbs up out of the sea and onto the ice, they will begin their journey. It has been this way for thousands of years. There destination is always the same, but their path is not. The ice on which the birds travel, never stops shifting and changing and new road blocs will appear every year. Scientists are not exactly sure how they find their way. Perhaps they were assisted by the sun or the stars, or maybe after having taken this journey for thousands of years, they are guided by some invisible compass within them. So they never stay stumped for long, and eventually one of them in the clan picks up the trail and the journey continues.

When they get tired of walking, they give their feet a rest, and use their bellies instead, to slide around. It is oftentimes a faster method, especially if they need to go down a hill.

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