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Penguin Vocabulary

Glossary of Penguin Terms


Penguins are unique and familiar birds around the world, and there are many special words that describe them and their behavior. By being aware of specialized penguin vocabulary, birders and non-birders alike can better recognize and appreciate what makes these birds so unusual and popular.

Click on any term for a more detailed definition and photos.

Brood Patch

A bare patch of skin covered by a fatty flap that develops low on a penguin's abdomen during the breeding season. This bare patch allows better heat transfer when a parent bird is incubating an egg so the chick can develop normally. This patch is also used to brood young chicks that have not yet developed down to keep themselves warm.


Describes birds that nest and breed in a group. All penguins are colonial and typically return to the same breeding area each year, with up to hundreds or thousands of breeding pairs raising chicks in the same spot. Depending on the exact species, adult birds may share duties to care for juvenile birds.


Plumage coloration that is dark above and light below to provide effective camouflage from either direction. Penguins have countershading to protect themselves from both flying and swimming predators and so they can more effectively surprise their own prey. This black-and-white coloration on penguins often makes the birds look as though they are comically wearing tuxedos.


Describes a species that is threatened with extinction. Two-thirds of penguin species are at risk, with five species officially considered endangered. Extreme conservation initiatives will be necessary to protect and preserve endangered penguins. Captive breeding programs, restrictions on fishing in penguins' ranges and more protection against oil spills are all necessary steps to protect penguins.


A penguin's specially adapted wing. Unlike the wings of flying birds, penguin flippers are nearly fused at the elbow and wrist, which gives them more strength and power for swimming. Flippers are also very thin and tapered so they function better in the water. On land, penguins often use their flippers for courtship displays, aggression or propelling themselves while tobogganing.


A small, shrimp-like crustacean that is a prominent source of food for many different penguins. The health and distribution of krill populations can drastically affect penguins, and if krill are exterminated by climate change or pollution, penguin populations can starve. Krill are believed to be one of the most abundant organisms on the planet, but penguins need huge amounts of krill to support their diets.


Describes any bird species that spends most of its life on, in or over the sea, often returning to land only to breed. Penguins are largely pelagic birds and are strongly adapted for their oceangoing lifestyle with flippers, layers of fat for insulation and densely packed feathers for less resistance and more insulation in the water. Other pelagic birds include shearwaters, albatrosses and petrels, all of which are distantly related to penguins.


A diet that consists primarily of fish. Penguins are piscivorous birds, though the exact composition of the diet of each species can vary and often depends on range, water temperature and how deeply the bird dives in order to hunt. Penguins also eat crustaceans, small squids and mollusks. The largest penguins, the emperor and king penguins, eat almost exclusively fish.


The act of leaping out of the water in a shallow arc while swimming. Penguins use porpoising in order to breathe, evade predators, confuse their prey, and coat their plumage with bubbles for added insulation against cold oceanic waters. The height and length of porpoising leaps will vary depending on the penguin species and water conditions.


A type of bird that is heavily associated with the sea. These birds often have long, tapered wings – or in the case of penguins, flippers – a special gland to excrete excess salt and sturdy bills for hunting fish and other aquatic prey. The term seabird is more generic and more widely used than the term pelagic, but both are essentially similar.


The scientific family of birds that includes all the penguin species, both modern penguins and extinct species. These are specialized seabirds adapted to life in the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere, including the brutally frigid Antarctic waters.


A penguin's act of sliding along the ice or snow while propelling itself with its flippers and feet. Because penguins can be ungainly on land, tobogganing is often a faster, easier, more efficient way to travel greater distances on land than walking. Tobogganing can also help penguins evade predators on land.

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