Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Penguins fall over onto their backs while trying to observe airplanes flying overhead.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1994]
Origins: This tale about bemused penguins and the pilots who toy with them has been part of Internet lore since 1994, but a 1985 sighting of the legend long predates that. The attribution of the piece to the Audubon Society's magazine is understandable — one figures anything to do with wild birds would be found there, as did whoever formed this story into a bit of lore.
People find the story plausible because it's easy to anthropomorphize penguins: They stand upright, they walk
As charming as the story is, there's not much reason to believe it. Penguins hate the sound made by airplanes and are known to scatter whenever one approaches.
This phenomenon was supposedly first reported by Royal Air Force pilots who flew over the Falklands during the 1982 war with Argentina, and it was popularized in a 1986 Bloom County cartoon in which Portnoy announces his desire to get his hair cut like Billy Idol because "everybody is doing it." Opus counters with the tale about penguins looking up at airplanes and falling over to make the point that whether one person or ten thousand performs a silly action, it's still a silly thing to do.
Embellishments of the original are part of the world of contemporary lore:
[Collected on the Internet, 1995]In November 2000, British Antarctic Survey researchers announced plans to spend one month aboard HMS Endurance studying the "falling penguin" phenomenon, even though one of their members,
During the war in the Falkland Islands (UK against Argentina) someone was employed to pick up penguins that fell over onto their backs. The reason was that the penguins were not used to seeing planes and when they flew over they all followed the planes with their eyes and if they flew overhead the penguins would follow them right up and over and tip onto their backs. Apparently once they'd fallen onto their backs they couldn't right themselves.
I'm afraid it's an urban myth. Aircraft do have an effect on penguins, but not to the extent of birds falling over.This announcement prompted dozens of readers to forward us messages proclaiming "You're wrong; this is true!" as if the mere effort to investigate a phenomenon were sufficient proof of its existence. (Surely scientists wouldn't study something that isn't true.)
In January 2001, the Associated Press reported Dr. Stone's findings:
When an aircraft flies overhead, they do not topple over like dominoes, as some Royal Air Force pilots have reported.Barbara "falling fowl of the truth" Mikkelson
A scientist who recently watched king penguins react to aircraft said Thursday that the birds do the practical thing: shut up and try to get away from the noise.
"Not one king penguin fell over when the helicopters came over Antarctic Bay," said Richard Stone of the British Antarctic Survey.
"As the aircraft approached, the birds went quiet and stopped calling to each other, and adolescent birds that were not associated with nests began walking away from the noise," he said in an interview.
Last updated: 18 December 2007
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