Penguins' Newfound Prominence

Penguins in Antarctica, 12-15-03
Penguins in Antarctica, 12-15-03

We've long known Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.

But, observes CBS News Sunday Morning anchor Charles Osgood in a commentary, Santa's reindeer are suddenly facing unlikely competition this Christmas for the title of Most Beloved Noel Animal.

It's ... the penguin — the strange bird from that other pole, the one down south.

Not that we haven't known about penguins for years: As long ago as 1956, CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood discussed the penguin's odd ways with expert William Sladen on the CBS series "Adventure," saying, "We're going to take a look at the social life of a creature whose upright stance and habit of formal attire sometimes makes him a caricature of ourselves."

"The Penguin" was the alias of a sinister Batman villain, portrayed on TV by Burgess Meredith, and in the movies by Danny DeVito.

On the plus side, penguins danced gracefully with Dick Van Dyke in the film "Mary Poppins."

But it was in last year's "March of the Penguins" that the bird really came into its own, portrayed as a brave and indomitable parent.

This season, penguins are playing to rave reviews in the animated movie "Happy Feet," in which one plucky penguin helps save the world.

To see photos from the premiere of "Happy Feet," click here.
Of course, where there's penguin publicity, there can be penguin problems: Some critics charge the movie has an environmental agenda.

And then there's the story of Silo and Roy, two male penguins who lived together at New York's Central Park Zoo for six years, before a female named Scrappy wooed Silo away.

All of which proves anew that, whenever we humans look at an animal, we often see just what we want to see:

As most of the world by now has heard,
The penguin is this year's Yuletide bird.
Instead of the North, where elves do their bit,
The penguin hails from the Pole opposite.
And rather than dressing in ermine and red,
Black-and-white are its colors, awake or a-bed.
To be sure, it's no reindeer — no power of flight.
Still, the way it zips through ice cold water's a sight.
And many's the praises that we have heard sung,
Of the way that the penguin takes care of its young.
Yes, this creature has lessons that we can all share,
While providing the last word in bird formal wear.