Monday, September 03, 2007

A penguin's tale

It seemed like love at first sight, but was it really? Antarctica can be pitch-black for months at a time.

His crisp prom-tuxedo look could not have been what attracted her. The lady-bird pretty much dressed the same way. All penguins do.

It could have been prom king's cute Andy Rooney eyebrows. Or maybe it was his lapel. He matched the feather behind his ear with a bright-orange crustacean.

There is something romantic about Emperor penguins. When they're featured on television shows, my wife starts cooing. "They mate for life," she says. She looks me in the eye when she says this. Maybe this is why I thought of penguins to tell a story with a moral.

Or perhaps everyone seems to be drawing lessons from penguins. The movies find them inspiring -- who knew they could tap-dance! And the Chicago Tribune's lobby display uses penguins' response to climate change as symbol of transformative workplace change.

A newspaper cohort called me breathless awhile back. "There are penguins in the Baltimore Sun's lobby!" she said. It sounded like a bit far to range in a flight from global warming. But the Tribune sibling was just relating a
common business fable on seeing adversity as opportunity. And what captain of industry wouldn't want to face change by striking out in a bold new direction? If he could only chart a course.

Our prom-king penguin was a goal setter. He wanted to escape the stifling quiet, where he could hear the permafrost crunch under his well-insulated feet. And it was time to make a break from his parents. At this time of year penguins would be flocking to the colony, and these love-birds couldn't imagine living at home till they were 6!

So they struck out for a new, independent life. But by the time King got to that young-adult hangout, the historic Rookery, it was dawning on him (and dawning can take quite a while in Antarctica) that starting a family was more than just hatching an egg.

For one, the open sea was another 50 miles away, and with a hatchling on the way the love-birds couldn't just order takeout squid every night. One of them had to go on the hunt, and if lady-bird was to raise her chick she needed to make the deep dive now. That left the prom king to babysit her egg for two months, while fending off wild winds.

So King huddled with his buddies, not to talk about hunting but as an avian windbreak. They'd take turns standing in the center of the huddle for warmth. This is where baby fat comes in handy: They were balancing eggs on their feet to heat them, and no one was going to be going out any time soon for a cold one.

One of them in fact was woozy and did not look like he would last the winter -- could it have been the bird flu? -- and this cold made it no time to be unsteady on one's feet. When his buddy swooned, King scooped up the egg and kept it warm as one of his own offspring.

By the time lady-bird returned with a bellyful of food, she would have two young mouths to feed, and King would have the sure knowledge that life was not about striking out on your own as he had thought, but relying on and being reliable for others. It's a lesson those who flock to the city often fail to recognize, but these are the cold facts.

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