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Penguins are aquatic, flightless birds that are highly adapted to life in the water. Famous for their waddling walk and tuxedo-like appearance, penguins typically live on islands or other isolated areas where there is little threat from land predators. Penguins live almost exclusively in the southern hemisphere, in places such as New Zealand, on the southern tips of South America and Africa, and in Antarctica. Despite what many think, penguins are not found only in cold climates; only a few species actually live so far south.

There are about seventeen to twenty different species of penguins. This month we will be exploring the largest penguin of them all – the emperor penguin.

The Emperor Penguin

The emperor penguin spends its entire life on the Antarctic ice and in its icy waters. This penguin is the largest of all penguins, averaging about four feet in height and weighing up to ninety pounds. It is also one of the most majestic-looking creatures on Earth. Its most distinguished features are the yellow to orange patches around each side of its neck, as well as the colorful base of its beak. The emperor penguin’s head is mostly black, broken up by two large curves that start at the ear and connect to the chest. These curves fade from orange to yellow to white as they move downward from the ears.

The emperor penguin is very unique. Not only is it the only cold-weather penguin that does not migrate during the winter, it even uses the frozen continent as a nursery! During the Antarctic winter, the South Pole becomes the coldest place on the planet. Temperatures fall to minus seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit. The female lays one egg in the winter, in May or early June, and then leaves for two months to forage for food. The female may need to travel fifty miles just to reach the open ocean, where it will feed on fish, squid, and krill. Before leaving, the female transfers the egg to the male. The male penguin rests the egg on its feet to keep it from touching the frozen ground, and covers it with the warm, feathered flap of its skin that’s known as the brood pouch. This keeps the egg warm and protected.

In the thick of the winter, the colony of male penguins huddle together to combat the hostile conditions and the 120-mph winds. They take turns moving toward the center of the group, whichwarms them up. Once a penguin has warmed a bit, it will move back to the perimeter of the group, so that the others could enjoy the protection from the icy elements.

The males stand for about 65 days straight, through frigid temperatures, cruel winds, and blinding storms - and they eat nothing the whole time! The female penguins return to their nests from when the eggs hatch to ten days afterward, from mid-July to early August. They bring with them a belly full of food, and they regurgitate this food for the newly hatched chicks. The males then take off to the sea in search of food for themselves. Afterward, the males return to help raise the chicks. In December, the start of the Antarctic summer, the ice begins to break up, and open water appears, just asthe young emperor penguins are ready to swim on their own.

Torah Talk

There is a basic Torah concept that can be learned from penguins. It’s interesting that penguins are such incredibly popular animals. They are among the most popular attractions at all zoo exhibits, along with panda bears and killer whales.

Notice something that these three creatures all have in common? They are all black and white. People are attracted to black and white animals because of the bold contrast that they present.

There is a parallel concept to this brought down in the Gemara. The Gemara tells us (Gittin43a): A person does not properly establish his Torah learning within himself unless he has erred in it.What this statement is telling us is that information that one acquires quickly and easily does not remain in his mind. To quote a famous expression: Easy come, easy go. Rather, it is the knowledge that comes through laborious effort and through trial and error that is valued by the person and that stays with him for life. It is the very mistakes themselves that the person made that are the cause for his appreciation of the accurate knowledge which he now has.

It says in Kohelet(2:13): And I have seen that the advantage of wisdom over foolishness is as the advantage of light over darkness.This verse is speaking of one who has formerly known only foolishness, but who has now acquired true wisdom. This newfound wisdom will be appreciated by the person far more than it would be by a person who has never known anything different.

It is precisely because the wisdom stands in contrast to the person’s former foolishness that it is of such great advantage.

This is the same advantage as that of light over darkness. One who has only seen light takes it for granted, but for the one who has known darkness, the light is of infinitely greater value.

We live in a world where there is darkness and evil. But only in such a world can we appreciate light and goodness.

Molting Mania

Penguins molt, or lose their feathers, once a year. They always molt on land or ice, and until they grow new waterproof coats, they are unable to go into the water. Molting is an essential function, as feathers wear out during the year. The new feathers grow under the old ones, pushing them out, but the old feathers do not fall out until the new ones are completely in place.

Penguins do not eat during this period, even though the molting process may take weeks to complete. Before their molt, penguins build a fat layer, which provides them with energy until the molt is over. Most penguins lose about half their body weight during this time.

Plethora of Penguins

You will rarely see a penguin alone, either on land or in the water. Penguins are very social creatures. They are almost always seen in large groups, as they prefer to live in colonies that number in the thousands. Penguins are constantly interacting with one another, through body language and vocalization. They rely on a variety of sounds to help them identify each other, to warn of danger, and to protect their territory. Some species form a communal nursery group called a crèche. Crèches are guarded by only a few adult birds; this allows the other parents to leave their chicks while foraging for food.