Thursday, February 25, 2016

Watch a Cuddly Baby Penguin Struggle to Survive in its Chilly Home

Three Emperor Penguin chicks use their parents as shields against the bitter cold. Photo: Frederique Olivier/John Downer Productions
A new PBS show, airing tomorrow night, tracks the dramatic first months of a young Emperor Penguin’s life—from birth on the ice, to a brave seaward migration.
Let's get one thing straight: A young penguin’s life isn’t all just song and dance à la Happy Feet. These fluffy babies actually have to fight beak and claw to survive in their frigid Antarctic homes—a story told in the new PBS Nature show "Snow Chick." The documentary, narrated by actress Kate Winslet, tracks the youngest and smallest member of a colony of Emperor Penguins: a tiny chick that is just as adorable as its cartoon counterpart, but is born into a very real world of wild snowstorms, absentee parents, and villainous “chick snatchers.”
Here are five key moments in the life of a baby penguin, as explored in the show:

Born in the Depths of Winter

Emperor chicks hatch during the harsh Antarctic winter (they're the only penguin species that do so), taking refuge in the father’s downy pouch while the mother goes fishing out at sea. In the meantime, fathers produce a milk-like liquid from their throat glands to nourish the chicks after birth. Weary but with bellies full of fish, the mothers return to meet and feed their chicks for the first time—no easy feat in a colony of up to 5,000 birds. To ease the confusion, the females use a unique braying call to find their partners and newborns.

Beyond the Pouch

After just a few weeks the chicks leave the pouch to try out their flippers on the ice. Now the parents’ biggest challenge is to guard them from other females. Penguins that have failed to breed will stop at nothing to steal a chick and pass it off as their own.

First Day of School

Eventually the growing babies are coaxed out of their pouch cribs completely, and are made to join a penguin “day-care”—a fluffy huddle of chicks that shield each other against the chill. This allows parents to fish together for the first time, doubling the amount they can feed to their ravenous offspring.
This chick loves to strut—snow or shine. Photo: Marty Passingham/John Downer Productions

Teenage Wasteland

The parents then go out on a long foraging trip to treat their ballooning chicks to one last feast. Afterward, they turn on their tails and leave, after five months of dedicated caregiving. At first the abandoned youth huddle together, seemingly bewildered—until instinct kicks in, and they begin their first-ever migration across the wind-whipped ice.

Leap of Faith

Using their beaks to brush out their down along the way, Emperor chicks slowly reveal their striking adult plumage. It’s the final goodbye to their childhood: Once they reach the Antarctic Ocean, their adult adventure begins. At just 60 percent of their adult weight, the juveniles jump into the sea, where they’ll spend four years swimming, eating, and sleeping on the polar waters. Months of dedicated parental care pays off for this species: About 95 percent of Emperor chicks survive their first year. Eventually, they return to their birthplace, ready to breed and begin the entire cycle anew.

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"Snow Chick" premieres on PBS at 8 p.m. EST on February 24. You can also visit to watch the full episode after it airs tomorrow.

Correction: Penguins don't have talons, as previously stated in the article.


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