The other day while recovering from dental surgery I watched March of the Penguins (2005) the third in a string of recent big screen documentaries about birds along with Winged Migration (2001) and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005). The movie tells the story of the love life of the Emperor Penguin. These flightless birds who are designed best for swimming must walk (or push themselves on their bellys) 70 miles inland to their breeding grounds. This begins a remarkable 9 months of mating, nesting, and raising chicks in the harshest environment imaginable.
I found myself at times thinking that there must be some easier way while at the same time amazed by the adaptations that have evolved in these penguins that allow them to continue to survive and reproduce. The location of the breeding grounds is selected because it is away from predators, it is on stable ice that won’t break under the eggs or young chicks, and is in a valley which provides some shelter from the harsh winter winds.
The eggs must be given particular care for if they spend more than a few moments on the ice the chick inside will die. So the penguins balance the eggs on their feet, keeping them warm under a fold of skin on the abdomen. Having not eaten for some time the mothers transfer the eggs on to the feet of the fathers and make the 70 mile (or longer) walk back to the sea. By the time they return, the chick are born and are ready for their first meal from their mothers’ mouths. At this time the males return to the sea, and the females care for the chicks. Back and forth the penguins march in the effort to get food and care for their young. By the time the chicks are old enough to live on their own, the ice pack has receded and there’s a much shorter walk for their first trip to the sea.
At first I was confused by the nine-month process which would mean that the majority of a penguin’s life would be involved in this complicated breeding process. Near the end of the film narrator Morgan Freeman mentions that penguins don’t start to make the march until they are five years old. So the young penguins and older penguins who could not mate or who lost their chick probably make up a pretty sizable population of penguins who remain by the sea all year long.
This movie does have some flaws. Freeman is forced to use his wonderful voice to read some pretty awful cliches from the script. There’s a lot of anthropomorphism going around too. Finally the soundtrack can be bombastic at times. Overall though this is a beautiful and educational documentary that captures a natural drama. The DVD includes a behind-the-scenes documentary narrated by one of the French filmmakers and a classic Bugs Bunny short.