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Body language - general behaviour

General behaviour includes all the actions of a single penguin to maintain its body like preening, bathing, warmth insulation and sleeping.
It is behaviour of one individual bird, without interaction with other penguins.
  • Bathing and preening

    Preening is for a penguin very important, even more it is essential for survival.
    By oiling their feathers with a mix from the preen gland (see also : thermal insulation), they make their feathers waterproof. Only so they are protected against the water infiltration and cold.

    In the colony, a penguin can become very dirty, because no-one mind where the excrements land they are pushing out. And when making their nest (like the banded or Spheniscus penguins), earth is flying everywhere. Morning bath is mostly taking place on the shore, but when they think a predator is in the neighbourhood, they swim away on the open sea to take their bath.
    As soon as penguins come ashore, they start cleaning and combing their feathers. With their bill they go with uniform motions through their feathers and shuffle their head to remove the water. Their neck is so mobile they can reach almost every single place. After each motion they bring their bill to the preen gland, an double-sac organ as large as a pea, located on the back near the base of the tail, in which a waxy oil is found. Most birds preen by rubbing their bill and head over the preen gland pore and then rubbing the accumulated oil over the feathers of the body and wings and the skin of the legs and feet. This preen oil, a complex mix of oil and wax, prevents dehydration and acts especially as insulation against the water. It also is a "dirt-antidote" and prevents mildews, bacteria or algae to clutch at the feathers.

    This oil reduces the friction of the water to a minimum, so a penguin seems to "fly" through the water. As soon as dirt or e.g. oil from an oilspill pollute their feathers, this friction resistant increases and the bird slows down, causing a lot of problems or even mean dead.

    Breeding among rockhoppers
    Preening can even be a part of the breeding behaviour. Among couples, it is a sign of love when they clean each others feathers on that parts which the other hardly can reach.

  • Huddling

    It is a kind of self-maintenance too, because huddling prevents for heat loss. It is behaviour emperor penguins show, when breeding at temperatures of minus 60 °C in the freezing winter weather conditions at Antarctica.

  • Warmth insulation: cooling off

    In contrast with general thinking, penguins often get too hot. Especially penguins from the warm, more northern regios do, like e.g. Spheniscus species. And overheating can be dangerous so there must be a way to lose that heat surplus.
    The air between the feathers and the skin isolate so much that a penguin could easely overheat in the sun. When they move fast through the colony and the sun burns on their black feathers, the heat can't be lost fast enough. You can see them spreading their wings to increase the body surface. Some species even pump blood through their wings, and then you can notice a pink surface on the inside. This is almost the only part of the body which isn't covered with feathers, therefore the only way to lose heat surplus.

    Panting of a  humboldt penguin
    When it still isn't enough, they will pant like a dog and lose heat through a moist mucous membrane.
    The four species of the Spheniscus, which live in warm climate regions, all have extra bare (no feathers), pink parts around their bill, to lose heat.


  • Sleeping

    A penguin too needs rest and has to sleep. On land you can see them standing with their head under a wing (see picture), or lying down on the ground. They sleep often but only for short naps, while, like all wild animals, they always have to be on the alert against predators. And while several penguin species spent various days or weeks on the open sea, they have to sleep there too, but how is unknown yet. They assume penguins float on the surface with their head on or between their flippers.
    While sleeping, their metabolism slows down to save energy. This is very important for survival during the days (weeks) where they breed and moult and have to fast.

next chapter: Aggressive behaviour
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