What makes this bird so special?
It's not just that they're cute. Penguins help define the effects of pollution, overfishing and climate change.

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA -- The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds -- a rehabilitation center complete with small swimming pools and medical files on all of its patients -- is where African penguins come to get better.

There are penguins that have been soiled by oil tanker spills and ones that have inadvertently gotten on a freighter and ended up out of their natural range. The staff and volunteers here lovingly restore them to health and, when possible, release these feathered creatures into the wild.

"They are quite fit when we release them. Fit and fat," said Venessa Strauss, chief executive of the foundation, with no small measure of pride in her voice.

But at this time of year, when millions of Americans are preparing to heartily consume another type of plump flightless bird (read: turkeys), one might be tempted to ask a simple question: Why are penguins special?

There are a number of reasons why we've become so fond of these avian friends from the Southern Hemisphere. Clearly, the adorability factor is key: their eerie similarity to tuxedo-clad waiters, tendency to waddle and well-documented devotion to their partners and offspring. The first Spanish explorers to Patagonia even called the pengiuns they saw pajaros niños, or "boy birds."

"Penguins aren't that different from people," explained Dee Boersma, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington at Seattle, who won the prestigious Heinz Award for her lifelong work on penguins. "They have to make a living, provide for their chicks and commute to find food. Walking upright and looking so well-dressed probably helps us identify with them."

But cuteness is not the only reason penguins don't make it onto the main course: They are one of the leading indicators of what's happening to the planet.

More than half of all penguin species rank as either endangered or vulnerable to extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Climate change is one of the main threats to penguins' existence: It is eroding the frigid habitat they depend on in the Antarctic, forcing them to travel farther for food. The Magellanic penguins that Boersma studies are traveling about 25 miles farther during incubation and going farther from their nest to raise their chicks than they did a decade ago.

And in some cases warmer ocean temperatures are changing the migration patterns of the fish they eat. "The fish are not where they're meant to be when the penguins need them," Strauss said.

Overfishing is another driver. Humans are collecting krill -- a shrimp-like crustacean that is an important part of the penguin's diet -- in ever-increasing numbers and taking other fish in a way that transforms the ecosystems that have sustained the birds for centuries.

And there is oil pollution, which continues to injure penguins from Argentina to South Africa. In 1994, rescuers took in 10,000 penguins soiled by the sinking of the Apollo off South Africa's coast, 5,000 of which survived. Six years later 19,000 were contaminated by a similar sinking of a ship called the Treasure, 17,000 of which lived. (An unknown number of penguins died in the field each time.) While these large-scale accidents garner public attention, it's the chronic, low-level pollution that often does the most damage.

Pablo García-Borboroglu, a researcher at the National Resource Council of Argentina and founder of the Global Penguin Society, wrote in a 2008 scientific paper, "Penguins are particularly vulnerable to petroleum spills because they swim low in the water, must surface regularly to breathe, do not fly, are less able to detect and avoid petroleum than other seabirds, and often encounter discharges of petroleum when they are at sea. . . . Petroleum pollution has killed thousands of penguins in Africa, Australia and New Zealand, South America, and even Antarctica."

Rehabilitation centers such as the one in Cape Town -- and the 25 that exist in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay -- have saved a significant number of penguins. Studies have shown the population of African penguins, a separate species, is 19 percent higher than it would have been without such efforts, but its overall population has still declined 90 percent over the past century.

García-Borboroglu called penguin rehabilitation "an absolutely necessary activity," but added, "It is important to say that people, governments and enterprises should not perceive that rehabilitation is the solution to the oil pollution problem."

While policymakers are taking some steps to protect the penguins that remain -- temporarily closing the fishing zone around South Africa's Dassen and Bird islands, for example -- Strauss said these actions aren't enough, especially since broader environmental factors are at play.

"At the end of the breeding season, we get these large numbers of abandoned chicks," she said, adding that many African penguins can no longer support the two chicks a year they traditionally breed.

In the end, Boersma argued, it's not a question of penguins' resilience but of humans' treatment of the habitat on which they depend.

"Seeing a rockhopper penguin dashed by the waves against a boulder with blood coming from its head get up and shake itself off, then trundle to its nest to greet its mate and chick sure impressed me," she said, recalling an incident she witnessed during her research in the Falkland Islands. "What saddens me is that penguins are having a rough time, and some of this is because of how humans are using the world."

Even when you're not on the menu, it seems, you're not home free.

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