Penguins have in recent years become very associated with Christmas, often in cartoon form and almost always dressed in wooly hats and scarves. That’s nothing new as such, but it seems to be increasing. I have no actual figures and data to back this up (well, since when has that ever stopped anybody?), but I have noticed them featuring on so many decorations and cards this year.
In fact, they have become pretty much the Christmastime bird. Not robins, swans, geese, calling birds, french hens, turtle doves, partridges in pear trees or the “should never vote for Christmas” turkey. Given that Santa is said to be based in the North Pole and penguins live in the South Pole, it might seem a bit strange, but it’s fairly obvious why. People associate Christmas with snow, snow can be associated with penguins, and penguins are associated with cuteness.
I think my earliest example of seeing penguins and Christmas together was Batman Returns, which has a somewhat less cute and more horrific vision of penguins (and indeed, The Penguin) at Christmastime. But I think what most people will be reminded of penguins and Christmas is last year’s obligatory sickly sentimental glurgefest John Lewis advert.
Snow Chick – A Penguin’s Tale was narrated by Oscar winning actress Kate Winslet. Her song ‘What If’ from an animated version of A Christmas Carol has been one of my favourites from my festive playlist ever since it came out. Her narration brings a soothing calmness to the programme.
It is called “the dramatised story”, which suggests that while they haven’t made the whole story up, a bit of artistic licence has come in, as with all “based on a true story” films. In this case, what they probably mean is that the footage might not be all of the same penguin, partly because it can be hard to tell one from the other, and partly because of the practicalities of making anything for television. There’s also the fact that we can’t read minds, let alone those of different creatures, so what the penguins might be thinking is guesswork. But regardless, let’s look at what was shown on screen.
For those who have seen penguin nature documentaries, the sight of thousands of father Emperor penguins huddled together in the Antarctic snow hatching their eggs will be a familiar one. In this case, all have hatched except one. He does eventually, with some encouragement from the cheaps of the neighbouring chick. The newly hatched chick is
the one that the programme names Snow Chick, and it is his story that we are following.
As he is the last to hatch, he is the youngest and the smallest. He looks tiny, even compared to the other chicks! Because of this he gets picked on, with some of the
other chicks biting him. Snow Chick’s mother bites back at one chick that is bullying him, but that’s only if it gets too violent. She has to try to let him fight his own battles. After all, she isn’t always going to be there. Later on, most of the chicks are hanging around together, but Snow Chick is still in his mother’s pouch. As he was the last to hatch, he is a bit behind in development. But it’s a case of tough love. She has to encourage him to be part of the group. Penguins are social birds, so they are going to rely on each other.
There are many scenes in which your heart will go out to the little Snow Chick. There is one where he is so hungry he tries to eat snow. There are times when he is by himself and shivering, and even times when he is in his mother’s pouch he is shivering – that’s how cold it is! One time he gets lost. He does the sensible thing and heads back to the colony.
He tries to find his mother, or even any warm pouch, but the others know he isn’t their chick and reject him. A blizzard comes and he is covered by snow. Luckily, his mother finds him in time.
A bit later, Snow Chick is getting too big for his father’s pouch, but still wants to be in there. If he wants to get warm, he’ll have to join the other penguin chicks who are huddling together. He tries to find a way in, but can’t. But eventually we get the quite nice moment where one penguin chick lets him in. It steps aside, allows Snow Chick through, then gets back in its place.
Snow Chick’s parents can now both go fishing at the same time, rather than one staying to look after him while the other fishes. They both set off to leave, but he isn’t ready for them to go. He tries to follow them, but instinctively knows he can’t go too far from the colony. He gets trodden on by another adult penguin before heading back to the other chicks.
The chicks aren’t left to entirely fend for themselves though. They have a sort of nanny, a female penguin who hasn’t bred herself, but will practice her parenting skills on these chicks. She’s a disciplinarian, and for good reason. It is now nearly summer, which means ice melting, the sea becoming closer and more predators. One of those are giant petrels. They always go for the smallest, and Snow Chick is caught by one! He manages to escape though, and runs to the nanny, who protects him. The giant petrel eventually gives up and eats some scraps instead.
The advancing summer also brings Adelie penguins. Smaller and more boistrous than Emperor penguins, they breed in the same grounds during the summer, and they are very keen for the Emperors to leave so they can move into their space. We see an Adelie pick fights with the Emperor penguin chicks, most of who are bigger than him! Snow Chick prefers to keep his head down and keep out of it. Adelies are known to regularly squabble among themselves too.
The closer sea isn’t all bad news. It means that the parents can go and come back for fish on a more regular basis. Some of the chicks try to cadge a free meal from other chicks parents! But towards the end all the chicks get big meals, 5 kilos of fish a time, and double helpings given that both parents are bringing fish. But this is because the time they will be getting fed and the time they will even see their parents is coming to an end. The adults eventually will leave the colony, and their chicks, for the last time. They will just leave without looking back, their chicks have to fend for themselves now (though some nanny/babysitter/childminder adults stay for a bit longer).
The penguin chicks don’t appear to expect their parents to never come back. They just are driven by instinct and hunger to head out to sea themselves. Snow Chick struggles to keep up with them, but fortunately a combination of the others becoming tired and a blizzard means that they have to stop for a while, which allows him to catch up with them. They are followed by the Adelie, who REALLY wants them to leave at this stage.
When they get to sea, the penguin chicks will only go when everyone is ready. Snow Chick falls in from some melted ice, but gets out. He then becomes the first chick to jump into the sea properly, with the others following his lead.
The story of Snow Chick – A Penguin’s Tale is the ever-popular one of an underdog who goes through tough times and not only survives but comes out on top. The familiar festive one is Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer, and obviously this programme also resembles the film Happy Feet.
We get a lot of comical shots such as penguins slipping on the ice. There are potentially new things to learn though. For example, we see a male penguin producing a sort of baby milk for his chick from a gland in their throat! We are also told, when a mother penguin comes back from fishing, that the fish she has caught is as fresh as the day she caught it thanks to an internal natural preservative. I did not know penguins had those sort of abilities!
As focussed on cuteness as this programme is, it does not pretend that life isn’t hard for penguins. They have to walk miles, sometimes having not eaten a thing for months, and can fall through thin ice where equally hungry predators are waiting. While they are all part of a colony, if anyone gets left behind the others won’t wait for them. They have to catch up. If one them has fallen into the sea they won’t be helped back up. If one is being chased by a predator, it’s their problem, the rest of the group will carry on. But you could hardly blame them. For penguin parents their own chick, and therefore their own survival, is their top priority. They can’t take too long to get back either, as many times chicks starve to death if the food-bringing parent hasn’t got back in time. Even when passing the chick from one parent to another, they have to make sure the chick isn’t on the ice too long as it could freeze to death.
Penguins who haven’t managed to breed sometimes use chunks of ice instead of an egg. There are some lone females whose instinct to be a mother is so overwhelming they try to take another penguin couples chick. They will fight each other for it, but will work together to block attempts from the real parents to get their chick back. That’s not even getting to the fact that there are times penguin chicks can end up dead as a result of all this, but fortunately there are also times when the parents get their chick back.
However, nature documentaries always show how much beauty is in the natural world too. There is in this programme, with the white of the ice and snow and the blue of the ocean.
Penguins are as popular as ever, as they are cute and adorable, and this was a big ratings hit for the BBC. I can see why people liked it so much. Obviously, people are going to love a cute, fluffy little penguin chick who has a lot against him but comes out on top regardless. Also, if my blog hits for when I reviewed The Polar Bear Family & Me taught me anything, it’s that people seem to feel more of an emotional connection to animals in documentaries if they are given names and if it is all about their particular story rather than lots of different ones together. Snow Chick – A Penguin’s Tale was a very nice programme, and was a good choice to be part of the Christmas TV line-up.