A 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.
A Mexican newspaper reports that bored Royal Air Force pilots stationed on the Falkland Islands have devised what they consider a marvelous new game. Noting that the local penguins are fascinated by airplanes, the pilots search out a beach where the birds are gathered and fly slowly along it at the water’s edge. Perhaps ten thousand penguins turn their heads in unison watching the planes go by, and when the pilots turn around and fly back, the birds turn their heads in the opposite direction, like spectators at a slow-motion tennis match. Then, the paper reports, “The pilots fly out to sea and directly to the penguin colony and overfly it. Heads go up, up, up, and ten thousand penguins fall over gently onto their backs.
— Audubon Society Magazine
People find the story plausible because it’s easy to anthropomorphize penguins: They stand upright, they walk rather than fly, and some of their actions seem distinctly human-like. Therefore it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine penguins, like people, calmly craning their necks to watch airplanes fly overhead.
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]
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.
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,
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, apparently.)
In January 2001, the Associated Press reported Dr. Stone’s findings:
When an aircraft flies overhead, [penguins[ do not topple over like dominoes, as some Royal Air Force pilots have reported.
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.
A viral August 2018 tweet referenced a wag who supposedly worked as a “penguin erector” at the Edinburgh Zoo to reset penguins fallen over from watching airplanes pass overhead:
Boy in the pub was telling me his job is a penguin erector so every time a plane flys over Edinburgh zoo the penguins can’t take their eyes off it and end up falling over n he just goes round picking them back up, 38 penguins 2000 flights a day
— SKH (@shalaylaa) August 19, 2018
The zoo confirmed that no such position existed:
We're sure this will come as a disappointment to many but there is no such position here at Edinburgh Zoo 🐧
— Edinburgh Zoo (@EdinburghZoo) August 20, 2018
Breathed, Berke. Bloom County Babylon.
Boston: Little, Brown, 1986 (p. 141).
Kamen, Al. “A Web-Footed Fan Club.”
The Washington Post. 17 May 1995 (p. A21).
Newman, Peter. “The Most Memorable 1996 Absurdities.”
Maclean’s. 30 December 1996 (p. 96).
Associated Press. “So, Do Penguins Really Topple Over When Aircraft Fly Overhead?”
2 November 2000.
Associated Press. “Penguins Don’t Topple Over Watching Planes, Study Finds.”
1 February 2001.
National Lampoon. “Penguin Harassment.”
August 1985 p. 62.
Flynn, Mike. The Best Book of Bizarre But True Stories Ever.
London: Carlton, 1999. ISBN 1-85868-558-3. (p. 52).