Hero and villain, mascot and movie star, the penguin captures the imagination unlike any other bird. Upright and bipedal, they look like us. Monogamous, devoted parents, they behave as we do. We celebrate their strengths, parody their shortcomings, and make them the subject of our myths. In studying penguins, we learn about ourselves.
On the Wall of Birds—a 70′ x 40′ mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology depicting the 375-million-year evolution of birds—an emperor penguin stands at attention. Topping four feet and 100 pounds, this to-scale emperor is the largest of its species, tall enough to stare an adolescent child in the eye.
Emperors are the heroic embodiment of parenthood. After waddling some 75 miles, males winter on the Antarctic tundra without food, enduring temperatures of minus 40°F (which is also -40°C) and hurricane-force winds, incubating their eggs. Four months later, the female returns to raise the hatchling, her mate returning to sea.
Their plumage—high-density feathers adapted for swimming, not flight—allows for anthropomorphic ambiguity. Are they wearing the black masks of crooks? Or the regal couture of heroes? Cast as villains, penguins antagonize Wallace and Gromit and battle Batman. As protagonists, they appear on the silver screen as surfers, dancers, and mutinous sailors who usher their animal friends to freedom on Madagascar.
Celebrated in both the Academy Award-winning documentary “March of the Penguins” and the animated film “Happy Feet,” the emperor penguin holds the unique designation as the only bird to win back-to-back Oscars. It also happens to be the only bird to dive to depths of 1,800 feet, stay underwater for nearly 20 minutes, and endure the polar winter for the sake of its young.
They’ve earned their celebrity.
“I paint the birds in familiar positions,” says artist and Ink Dwell founder Jane Kim. “Many times that means creating the illusion of movement and energy. The emperor penguin was a different case. These birds spend months and months standing still, incubating their eggs, so I wanted to capture that.”
When completed, the mural titled “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Evolution and Diversity of Birds,” will be the only one to showcase all 241 modern families of birds in one place. “Penguins are so awkward on land, with their bellies and funny waddles, it would be easy for an image like this to slip into parody,” says Kim. “The trick was to balance the inherent humor of their upright shape with their true strength and nobility.”