The birder in me wriggles with envy at the thought of Cherry and the rest of the Terra Nova crew surrounded by teeming hordes of Adelie penguins. They rule Antarctica at least in terms of numbers: sheer, mind-boggling hundreds of thousands. I’m sure once the physics is worked out, we’ll find that this fantastic density of cuteness warps the fabric of space-time, or at least sucks some of the cuteness out of surrounding regions of the universe.
The editor in me would like to add that Adelie should be written with an accent over the first ‘e’, and that syllable should be accented. As in “a daily dose of penguins.”
Anyway, I’ve never seen a penguin in the wild. Here’s what Cherry saw, in late 1910.
Hardly had we reached the thick pack…when we saw the little Adelie penguins hurrying to meet us. Great Scott, they seemed to say, what’s this, and soon we could hear the cry which we shall never forget. ‘Aark, aark,’ they said, and full of wonder and curiosity, and perhaps a little out of breath, they stopped every now and then to express their feelings.
Wilson, the zoologist, on the Discovery expedition eight years earlier, saw them
…with head down and much hesitation judging the width of the narrow gap, to give a little standing jump across as would a child, and running on the faster to make up for its delay.
Cherry sees another resemblance:
They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt-fronts – and rather portly withal.
But he suggests a reason why the cinematographers are able to get such great pictures of them gathering at the edge of an iceberg:
They will refuse to dive off an ice-foot until they have persuaded one of their companions to take the first jump, for fear of the sea-leopard which may be waiting in the water below, ready to seize them and play with them much as a cat will play with a mouse.
Because adults have no predators on land, they were often clueless there:
One day a team was tethered by the side of the ship, and a penguin sighted them and hurried from afar off. The dogs became frantic with excitement as he neared them: he supposed it was a greeting, and the louder they barked and the more they strained at their ropes, the faster he bustled to meet them. He was extremely angry with a man who went and saved him from a very sudden end, clinging to his trousers with his beak, and furiously beating his shins with his flippers. It was not an uncommon sight to see a little Adelie penguin standing within a few inches of the nose of a dog which was almost frantic with desire and passion.
Scott saw the same sort of thing from a different point of view:
The great trouble with [the dog teams] has been due to the fatuous conduct of the penguins. Groups of these have been constantly leaping on our floe. From the moment of landing on their feet their whole attitude expressed devouring curiosity and a pig-headed disregard for their own safety. They waddle forward, poking their heads to and fro in their usually absurd way, in spite of a string of howling dogs straining to get at them…. There is a spring, a squawk, a horrid red patch on the snow, and the incident is closed.
In the summer of 1912-1913, before he headed home, Cherry made some of the first observations of the curious way Adelies use rocks. They pile them up to raise their eggs above runoff and late snowfall – but at times they seem to acquire the importance of currency. Males roam about endlessly in search of choice rocks to proffer before their mates.
All the surrounding rookery made their way to and fro, each husband acquiring merit, for, after each journey, he gave his wife a stone. This was the plebeian way of doing things; but my friend who stood, ever so unconcerned, upon a rock knew a trick worth two of that: he and his wife who sat so cosily upon the other side.
The victim was a third penguin. He was without a mate, but this was an opportunity to get one. With all the speed his little legs could compass he ran to and fro, taking stones from [a] deserted nest, laying them beneath a rock, and hurrying back for more. On that same rock was my friend. When the victim came up with his stone he had his back turned. But as soon as the stone was laid and the other gone for more, he jumped down, seized it with his beak, ran round, gave it to his wife and was back on the rock (with his back turned) before you could say Killer Whale. Every now and then he looked over his shoulder, to see where the next stone might be.
I watched this for twenty minutes. All that time, and I do not know for how long before, that wretched bird was bringing stone after stone. And there were no stones there. Once he looked puzzed, looked up and swore at the back of my friend on his rock, but immediately he came back, and he never seemed to think he had better stop.
Cherry had been listed on the expedition as the “assistant zoologist” despite having essentially no science training (he had studied Classics and Modern History at Oxford) – but still managed to show that the key ingredient in a field biologist is the ability to pay attention.