What could it be if you saw a bird like a penguin in the Northern hemisphere? Read on to learn a little more about penguins and discover some birds that look a little bit like them that are found where penguins are not.
What Are Penguins?
Penguins are aquatic, flightless birds found almost exclusively in the southern hemisphere. Only the Galapagos penguin is found north of the equator. And they have a rather unique breeding season.
These birds feed on sea life and are highly adapted for life in the water – excellent swimmers, they can be quite ungainly on land. They typically spend around 50% of their time on land and 50% in the water.
Sadly, these fascinating birds are under threat. Most penguins today have declining populations; many are near-threatened, vulnerable, or endangered. Learning more about these birds can help us understand how to protect them.
What Penguins Are There?
They are typically divided into 6 genera, with 17 and 20 penguin species. Some come with white feathers, and others with black feathers. Others also have brown feathers with black plumage.
- Great Penguins (King penguins and emperor penguins)
- Brush-Tailed Penguins (The Adelie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins)
- Little Penguins (the Little Penguin and Australian little penguin)
- Banded Penguins (Magellanic, Humboldt, Galapagos, and African penguins.)
- Megadyptes Penguins (the yellow-eyed and Waitaha penguins may be extinct)
- And Crested Penguins (including rockhopper penguins, royal penguins, and macaroni penguins.)
Penguins are usually quite easily identified as flightless birds. They are typically characterized by upright posture on land, waddling, humorous gait, sleek appearance, and largely black-and-white coloration.
However, while most believe they can easily identify a penguin when they see one, some other birds might be mistaken for one, especially when not seen up close.
Which Birds Look Like Penguins?
Birds that look like penguins are those in the auk or alcid (Alcidae) family. They are superficially like these famous bird species and are their equivalent in some senses in the northern hemisphere.
They resemble them in their black-and-white colors, upright posture, and habits. And they boast some striking similarities with penguins. One would even think they are different types of penguins.
However, they are not closely related to penguins but are believed to be an example of moderate convergent evolution.
However, one important thing to note is that while all these bird species have a resemblance to penguins, there is one major difference. All of these birds, unlike the penguin, can fly. And they’re just penguin lookalikes.
The only flightless auk was the Great Auk – a species like a penguin that became extinct in the 19th Century.
This bird was 75 to 85 centimeters (30 to 33 inches) tall and weighed about 5 kilograms (11 pounds). It had an interestingly hooked and heavy beak, a white front, and a black head and back.
Interestingly, this species actually gave us the name penguin. Since the Great Auk’s Latin name is Pinguinus impennis. Northern European sailors called penguins the southern hemisphere species of bird when they came upon them due to their resemblance to the Great Auk.
Sadly, the Great Auk is no more, but here are some living birds that resemble penguins to some degree:
The least auklet (Aethia pusilla), the crested auklet (Aethia cristatella), and the parakeet auklet (Aethia psittacula) are seabird species of Auk (the Alcidae family) that look a little like penguins in some way.
The Least Auklet
The least auk is the most abundant seabird in North America and one of the most abundant in the world, with a population of around nine million birds. They breed on the islands of Alaska and Siberia. This is the smallest species of auk and perhaps the least penguin-like of this group – but it still shares some similarities.
The Crested Auklet
The crested auklet is superficially similar to a penguin. It can measure 18–27 cm (7.1–10.6 in) in length, 34–50 cm (13–20 in) in wingspan, and weigh 195–330 g (6.9–11.6 oz). Their bodies, wings, and tails are mostly a dark gray-black, their legs and feet are grey, and their claws are black. Their bills are reddish-orange and tipped with yellow, and they have yellowish-white irises and white plumes from their eyes to their ears.
It often breeds in mixed colonies alongside the above species. It has a total population of around 6 million, almost half in North America, and is considered to be of the least concern as a species, though oil spills and predation threaten its survival in Alaska.
The parakeet auklet is found in the boreal waters of Alaska, Kamchatka, and Siberia and breeds on cliffs, slopes, and boulder fields of offshore islands, generally moving south during the winter. It is small (23cm) with a short upturned orange bill, white belly, and black back and head.
There are currently between 1 and 2 million of this species.
The cute and diminutive little auk, Alle alle, is the only member of the genus Alle. This bird breeds in the high Arctic. Commonly called dovekies, they are just 19–21 cm in length, with a 34–38 cm wingspan and a weight of 4.7 to 7.2 oz (134-204 g).
Adult birds have black heads, necks, backs and wings, and white underparts. They have very short and stubby bills and small, rounded black tails.
The common murre or guillemot, Uria eagle, occurs in low-arctic and boreal waters in the North Atlantic and North Pacific. This bird spends most of its life at sea, coming to land only to breed on rocky shores or islands.
While these birds can and do fly, they typically become flightless during a molt after breeding and won’t fly for 1-2 months.
The common murre is 38–46 cm (15–18 in) in length with a 61–73 cm (24–29 in) wingspan and weight that varies between around 774-1250 g (1 lb 11.5 oz – 2 lbs 12 oz).
They are black on their heads, wings, and backs, with white underparts, and have a dark, pointed bill and a rounded, short tail. Some individuals in the North Atlantic, known as “bridled guillemots,” have a white ring around the eye extending back as a white line. This is not a distinct subspecies but a polymorphism that becomes more common the farther north the birds breed.
The thick-billed murre, Uria lomvia, is another bird related to the above. It also has black and white coloring, making it resemble a penguin. These can be found on North America’s Atlantic and Arctic oceans, the Pacific Coast, and the Russian arctic.
Just slightly bigger than the above, this is the largest living member of the Alcidae family. They differ from the common murre in their thicker, shorter bill with white gape stripe and their darker head and back.
Puffins are another group of auks in the Alcidae family. There are three members of the Fratercula genus that are given this name: the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica), the Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata), and the Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata).
Puffins are often known for looking like miniature penguins. However, side by side, these birds do not actually look all that much alike. The main differences are their can fly, size, and beaks.
The Atlantic puffin is 32 cm (13 in) long, with a 53 cm (21 in) wingspan and a weight of 380 g (13 oz). It resides in the North Atlantic and winters as far south as Morocco and New York. This is the only puffin native to the Atlantic.
This bird has a black crown and back, pale grey cheek patches, and a white body and underparts. Ita broad, boldly marked red-yellow-and-black beak and orange legs make it look like a clown, an impression not altered when one hears the ‘chuckles’ they emit.
The larger horned puffin is 38 cm (15 in) long, with a 58 cm (23 in) wingspan and a weight of 620 g (1.37lb). It is found along Siberia, Alaska, and British Columbia of the North Pacific coasts and heads south in winter to California and Baja California.
It looks similar to the Atlantic puffin but has a ‘horn’ of black skin above the eye in adult birds.
The tufted puffin is 38 cm (15 in) long, with a 63.5 cm (25.0 in) wingspan and a weight of 780 g (1.72 lb). It is found in British Columbia, throughout South Eastern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, and heads south to California for winter.
It is easily recognized by its wide red bill and yellow tuffs along both sides of the top of the head.
The Razorbill, Alca torda, sometimes also referred to as razor-billed auk, is the closest living relative of the extinct Great Auk. It lives in the subarctic waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
They are black on the back and white on the front; males are a little larger than females. Its head is darker than that of a common murre.
This close relative of the puffins is the only living member of the Cerorhinca genus. It ranges widely across the North Pacific.
It takes its name from a strange horn-like extension of the beak on breeding adults. But other than this, it does look a little like a penguin, with an upright stance, darker plumage on top, and pale white underneath.
Remember, while they may resemble penguins in some ways, these birds are not related to penguins, and all the living examples can fly and are not related to the penguins that are so familiar to us all.