Is a penguin a bird?

This question arises because we often see images of these creatures swimming underwater, or waddling in an ungainly way across the icy wastes of Antarctica: penguins can’t fly and we typically associate birds with soaring through the air. However, penguins are classified as birds (Aves) in zoological terms. They are black and white flightless seabirds of the family Spheniscidae which are found in the southern hemisphere, chiefly in the Antarctic (although several species live in more temperate regions).

In common with other birds, penguins have feathers, lay eggs, and are warm-blooded. Through evolutionary processes, penguins’ wings gradually adapted to become flippers, which they use for swimming. The feathers of a penguin are relatively short and stiff in comparison to those of other birds, and they overlap closely to form a thick, smooth layer which traps air beneath it and so provides insulation from the cold.

Other flightless birds include the Australian emu, the cassowary of New Guinea, and the ostrich. Unlike the penguin, they’re all more visibly ‘feathery’ as well as being land-based, so we’re probably more likely not to question the fact that they’re birds.

Read about the fascinating origin of the word penguin here.


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