Penguin Fight Club
By Martin Franklin
As readers of a certain age will know, both the first and second rules of Penguin Fight Club are, “You do not talk about Penguin Fight Club.”
That, however, would mean an especially short and (even more than normal) disappointing blog post.
I’m therefore going to bend the rules this once, not least as penguin combatants themselves often discard the rules of Fight Club, in particular, as Brad Pitt’s character so clearly articulates, “Fourth rule: Only two guys to a fight. Fifth rule: One fight at a time, fellas.”
Fictional penguins tend to bend the rules even further. For example, Batman’s old adversary “The Penguin” used technology to fight, frequently using modified high-tech umbrellas as weapons. Similarly, the clay-animated “Feathers McGraw” disguised himself as a chicken by pulling a rubber glove over his head, used robotic “Techno Trousers” to steal a diamond, and trapped Wallace and Gromit in a wardrobe at gunpoint.
Real penguins do, however, thankfully tend to stick to a fairly well documented and more traditional set of agonistic behaviours (i.e. social behaviours related to fighting)1, 2, 3. These include:
1. Visual penguin displays from a short distance
- Staring. This may be a “sideways” stare (where the head is held to one side, with one eye fixed on the opponent), or “alternate staring” (where the head is moved from side to side, and opponent stared at with each eye alternately). The whites of the eyes may be exposed.
- Pointing. The bird points its closed bill directly towards the opponent (sometimes with neck-rotation). This is often used by birds on nests towards other birds that venture too close.
- Gaping. The bird leans towards its opponent, with neck stretched and bill open.
Humboldt Penguin pointing, while standing (© Martin Franklin/ZSL)
2. Penguin Vocalisations (combined with visual displays)
- Ecstatic displays (also called trumpeting). This can either be performed by an individual or in pairs (in which latter case it is termed a “mutual” ecstatic display). It involves stretching the neck upward and flippers outward, and making one or more loud donkey-like brays (potentially also rolling the head from side to side, depending on the species). Context, however, is everything, as although such displays often indicate ownership of (or claims to) territory (particularly nest sites), and are often seen in connection with fights, they can also be used to advertise availability for mating and communicate identity (e.g. to a partner elsewhere on the beach).
- Growling/hissing. This is produced during exhalation and may accompany, for example, “pointing” (particularly in the crested penguins) or “lunging” (particularly in Little Penguins).
Humboldt Penguin ecstatic display (single bird) (© Martin Franklin/ZSL)
3. Physical/Close Contact
- Charging/lunging. The bird runs or lunges towards its opponent.
- Pecking. The closed bill is used to make a hard, speedy jab (often following “pointing”).
- Bill vibrating. Two birds rapidly and repeatedly clap their bill against the other’s bill (think of “fencing”).
- Biting. A pinching grip (particularly on the opponent’s neck or back), making use of the sharp hook on the end of the bill (which is otherwise primarily useful for grasping fish), sometimes in conjunction with pulling and twisting.
- Beaking (also called the tête-à-tête posture). Two birds interlock their bills, then pull and twist to try to dislodge the opponent.
- Beating. During “biting”/”beaking”, the bird rapidly and repeatedly slaps its opponent with a flipper. (The author can attest that this is surprisingly painful when a bird elects to perform this on a human.)
Of course, differences are observed in different species.
For example, Adélie Penguins seem also to use a “bill-to-axilla” threat posture3 (which looks a bit like they’re trying to smell their armpits). Incidentally, it has been suggested that, just like in the worst human soap-operas, the most aggressive fights between Adélie Penguins occur when a female returns to her nest after an extended absence, only to find another female has pair-bonded with her former mate4.
Little Penguins (in which it seems around 10% of aggressive interactions escalate to fighting) similarly possess a significant repertoire of distinct agonistic behaviours (22 in cave-nesting birds and 13 in burrow-nesting birds). Some of these actions are common to most penguins, as already described above. Others (as far as the author is aware) are yet to be widely reported upon in relation to other species. These include the “zig-zag approach”, the “breast butt” (think of an angry soccer player with his arms held rigidly by his sides squaring up to another) and a variety of nuanced flipper-spreads.5
So what should the reader do, should he/she find him/herself on the wrong end of any such agonistic penguin behaviour?
The author suggests (without any guarantees) that a generally sensible course of action might be to attempt the kind of “appeasement” or “displacement” behaviour deployed by penguins.
Therefore, increasing the distance between you and your aggressor is probably the best tactic. However (and the following is not meant seriously):
- If stationary, try the “submissive hunch”, the “face-away”, or “look-around” (rotate your retracted neck), or start “preening” yourself (good luck with that one).
- If walking through a colony, try “slender-walking” (with body stretched up, neck extended, flippers very slightly spread, and – if you can manage it – feathers sleeked down).
- Alternatively, get yourself a warm coat and egg and join the male Emperor Penguins during breeding season: aggression is suppressed at this time, allowing them to huddle together for warmth3.
But please repeat nothing of this: after all, you know the first two rules of Penguin Fight Club.
© Martin Franklin 2019
Martin Franklin is a bird keeper at ZSL London Zoo, and works extensively with Humboldt Penguins. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of ZSL.
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1 Merritt, K. and King, N. E. (1987). Behavioral Sex Differences and Activity Patterns of Captive Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus humboldti). Zoo Biology, 6(2), 129-138.
2 Eggleton, P. and Siegfried, W. R. (1979). Displays of the Jackass Penguin. Ostrich, 50, 139-167.
3 Williams, T. D. (1995). The Penguins. Oxford University Press: New York.
4 De Roy, T., Jones, M. and Cornthwaite, J. (2013). Penguins: Their World, Their Ways. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
5 Waas, J. R. (1990). ‘An Analysis of Communication during the Aggressive Interactions of Little Blue Penguins (Eudyptula minor)’. In David, L. S. and Darby, J. T. (eds). Penguin Biology. San Diego, California: Academic Press Inc. pp. 345-376.