Books

What It's Like to Hold a Baby Penguin

Discover the adorable details in this excerpt from “Penguins in the Desert.”

Magellanic Penguins are masters of survival, both in the desert and the sea. The black, white, and pink species has found a way to thrive in the bare Patagonia steppe that covers most of southern Argentina. They mate, nest, and fish on the coast in colonies of hundreds of thousands, undeterred by predators like orcas, sea lions, and Giant Petrels.

One scientist who's dedicated her life to studying Magellanic Penguins is Dee Boersma. The conservation biologist from the University of Washington has shadowed the colonies since 1982, taking notes on hundreds of hours of observations on the species' behaviors. Her efforts have helped shed light on how the birds fare after offshore oil spills and changing ocean temperatures due to global warming.

In 2008, Seattle-based writer Eric Wagner and his wife El joined Boersma's motley crew in Argentina's Patagonia. Over the course of the six-month field season, Wagner developed a strong connection to the penguins, particularly with a bullish male named Turbo. But nothing could prepare him and El for hatching season and a summer full of fuzzy chicks. In chapter five of his new book about the experience, Penguins in the Desert, Wagner recaps how he first came face to face with a newborn while doing a routine checkup for Boersma's records.

Excerpted from PENGUINS IN THE DESERT by Eric Wagner, published by OSU Press. Copyright © 2018 by Eric Wagner.

***

Two days ago the egg started peeping, a sound so near to silence that we almost missed it. “Wait,” El had said. “Do you hear something?”

I hadn’t. It was 9 in the morning but the day was already hot. We were at 141G, a nest in Max-Vista. The area marks the colony’s inland boundary, and the name Dee gave it reflects this. Half a mile from the beach, it is about as far as a penguin is willing to waddle to a nest (Max), and it sits atop a hill, affording a generous view of the bustle below and the sea beyond (Vista).

El motioned me down. I knelt next to her and leaned as close to the nest entrance as I dared. The female was coiled back, sure to strike if I moved in an inch. But yes, I could hear it: steady and insistent and muffled by eggshell.

Peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep.

“Wow,” I said. El smiled. I made a note on the nest page and we continued on. Yesterday, the egg was cracked (or pipped), the crack (or pip) about half an inch long. Loose bits of fractured shell wiggled as the chick strained to push itself free. We could see the tip of its small bill, the white egg tooth raised like a horn. Its movements were slow but determined, suggesting tenacity.

Today, the female’s stance is changed. Before, she looked settled on her eggs, focusing all her warmth on them, but now she is hunched, as if straddling something. I prod her chest with my gancho until she backs away. Underneath her is a tiny, bedraggled chick, newly hatched and exhausted from the effort. It looks like a scrap of gray velour.

“Wow,” I say again. I kneel and reach for my egg cup.

El says, “That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.” She looks right at me. “You be careful with it, Eric Wagner.”

 

There have so far been no fixed points to the season at Punta Tombo. Change instead comes in waves, one phenomenon rushing in as another recedes, until we realize that the earlier one, which had been so engrossing, our whole world, is over. The days of the single males, the arrival of the females, the laying of the eggs—these have become discrete periods only in retrospect.

A chick is definitive the moment it appears. Or even before that, from the moment it could appear. Here we take our cue from Dee. She may allow for a 48-hour window around a new egg, but she insists on knowing the exact day the chick hatches from that egg. That is why, 36 days after the female in 141G laid her first egg, we started visiting the nest daily, on what are called chick-checks.

The first day, the male, band number 45787, was sitting on the clutch. His mate, who is unbanded, relieved him two days later. Watching them come and go, I again see how precisely calibrated a penguin’s life has to be. In the Cañada, those pairs still with eggs have been switching off at their nests more and more frequently, their absences progressively shorter. When the males returned from that first long foraging trip, the females left to feed themselves, maybe for a week, or at most a week and a half. When they came back, the males went, but for only a few days. Then the females took their turn, also for a few days. Some mates have since been trading places every other day. They are trying to time it so one of them is at the nest with a bellyful of fish when the first chick hatches, and they can feed it as soon as possible.

Sometimes we are around when a female or male returns to its mate. Their wet feathers shining like obsidian, they waddle up to their nest, stick their head in, and bray. Dee says it’s like they’re calling out, “Honey, I’m hoooooooome!” The nest-bound mate emerges and responds in kind. The two penguins will then stand in front of the nest and call together, their voices overlapping in a burry exchange of staccato trills and wails: b-b-b-bbbbb-bwaaaa! (bbbbb-bwaaaa!) b-b-b-bbbbb-bwaaaa! (bbbbbbwaaaa!). They might do this for several minutes. If it is the male who has returned, he will occasionally bring a gift: tufts of grass he has yanked from the ground or a pebble that attracted his eye. (“In so far as these stones have strong or unusual colors,” Robert Cushman Murphy noted, “they may signify a primitive aesthetic sense . . .”)

The penguins’ ritual of return is called a nest relief ceremony, and the act of the male and female braying together, a mutual display. Alan Clark, another former student of Dee’s, wrote his dissertation on these duets. Having sung on and off Broadway for more than a decade before earning his PhD, he was drawn to the penguins’ strange music. He spent several seasons crouched behind bushes in the campo, his shotgun microphone pointed at pairs so he could record their natterings. (To muffle the wind, he wrapped the microphone in a fuzzy toilet cover.)

Like other birds, penguins make their sounds with what is called a syrinx, from the Greek word for pan pipes. Unlike the human larynx, which sits atop the trachea, a penguin’s syrinx is at the bottom, where the trachea forks into the lungs. An air sac surrounds the structure of membrane and bone, and it lies deep in the chest cavity, which acts as a reverberating chamber. The syrinx has two sides that can vibrate independently, creating what biologists have called the “two-voice” phenomenon. This explains the eerie polyphony of the penguin’s call: the penguin is making two sounds at once. But where I hear their calls as a hodgepodge of huffs and howls, Alan heard more than twenty discrete vocal structures: overtones, harmonics, other resonances that encoded information about the caller. Smaller penguins sound different than larger penguins. (“Higher pitched and whiny,” Alan says.) Older penguins sound different than younger penguins. (“Hoarse, like they’re chain smokers,” Alan says.)

Alan then played the penguins’ calls back to them and their mates. He found that, for Magellanic Penguins, voice is identity. They don’t distinguish each other by sight alone, but also by sound. Both males and females get excited when they hear their own mutural display calls, but not those of other pairs. Also, a female perks up when she hears her mate’s ecstatic display but ignores those of both neighbors and strangers. Curiously, or perhaps not, the response cools the longer the male and female have been together as a pair. (“Draw your own conclusions,” Alan says.)

Alan showed something else as well: a chick will respond to the mutual display of its parents. While in the egg, it was listening, learning their calls. Once it hatches, it has already started to know their voices.

 

I heft the egg cup and prop myself on my elbows to see how best to remove the chick. Although it is the first time I’ve had to do this on my own, this isn’t the first study chick of the season. One hatched a few days ago in the Factura area, at a nest in a molle bush on the berm. Two field workers from last year, Jeff and Olivia, processed it. They flew down from Seattle expressly to teach us how to handle chicks, how to measure them. They made it seem simple, their movements skilled and sure, but the lesson ended on a note of caution. “Working with chicks is a lot different than working with eggs,” Jeff told us. “You’ll see that for yourselves.” Yes, we will. An egg might break, but a chick can die.

I scoot the egg cup into the nest and set it next to the female. Thankfully she is calm, nibbling on the egg cup rather than battering it. I cover the chick with the cup and wedge my gancho under its belly to hold it in place, and swiftly withdraw the assemblage. The female watches all of this with an almost academic curiosity. El takes the chick in her hands, and I drop the egg cup to the ground. My arms suddenly feel boneless. I didn't realize I was so tense.

El holds the chick, which seems not to be touching her skin so much as floating on a cushion of her care. Its feet are fleshy and pink, its flippers soft and pliable as felt. Its eyes aren’t yet open. Some substance from the eggshell has dried to a crust on its head, so that tufts of down stick up like a mohawk. The chick peeps and nestles itself into El’s hands. “Oh, my goodness,” she breathes. From her vest pockets she removes a 100- gram scale, a pantyhose liner sock, and her calipers. She puts the chick in the sock and clips it to the scale. “One hundred grams exactly,” she says as the chick dangles in the air. New chicks are supposed to weigh between seventy and ninety grams, which is about three ounces, so this one is notably heavy. El takes the chick out and turns it around in her fingers, pressing it lightly. “Feel how full its belly is,” she says. “I think it was recently fed.”

She next arranges the chick on her knee to measure its flipper and foot and its bill’s length and depth, spreading out the relevant body parts between her forefinger and thumb. Its flipper is 2.72 centimeters long, and its foot 3.3 centimeters. Its bill is 1.54 centimeters long, but when El tightens the calipers to determine the bill’s depth, the chick squeaks in distress. “Oh no!” El exclaims. “Sorry!” She hurriedly finishes. “Zero point eight three centimeters,” she says, before adding sheepishly: “That might be a little bigger than the bill actually is.”

Now that El is done, we each take a minute to hold the chick. We are almost giddy. No, not almost: we are giddy. I cradle the chick in my hands, nuzzle it, inhale deeply. It has a musky scent, maybe a touch unguent. The smell is completely new to me. “Hello,” I whisper. The chick is exquisitely soft and delicate. A penguin that can’t see, and so doesn’t have the wherewithal to fear me, or even to realize I am holding it. A breeze plays across its down. It yawns. Its little pink tongue has denticle buds. “Hello,” I whisper again. The response is involuntary. I wonder what my voice sounds like, whether I even register as a thing, or if I am just ambient noise, like the wind rustling a bush.

I put the chick in the egg cup and deposit it near its mother. She tucks it under her brood patch. I am getting up to leave when El says, “Let’s give it a name.”

“Okay,” I say. “What should we name it?”

“The nest ends in G,” El says. She thinks for a second. “George Xavier.” It is the name of a good friend’s young son.

“Sounds good,” I say, and I scribble George Xavier next to the chick’s measurements.

Penguins in the Desert, by Eric Wagner, OSU Press, 208 pages, $19.95. Buy it online at Indie Bound.

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