Renowned penguin expert to speak at WoW festival

Published on Wed, Mar 9, 2011 by By Jeremy Schwartz

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If you get a chance to ask Frank Todd, aviculturist, author and world-renowned waterfowl and penguin expert, what his favorite species of bird is at next weekend’s Wings Over Water (WOW) birding festival, chances are you won’t get a straight answer.

The San Diego native maintains that his favorite of all the species he has studied is the one he’s researching right now. With more than 40 years in bird research, he’s studied everything from sea ducks and Emperor penguins to birds of prey.

“The problem is, there’s 10,000 species of bird,” Todd said. “It’s hard to focus on just one.”

Nonetheless, Todd will be focusing on just one, or at least a few, during his WOW festival talk at 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 19, at the Blaine school district performing arts center. His talk will focus on his most recent trip to the Antarctic and include local water birds, just so his waterfowl enthusiast friends in the area don’t get mad, Todd joked.

Since 1972, Todd has spent at least four months a year in the Antarctic studying the Emperor penguin, seen in the 2005 documentary “March of the Penguins.” Todd said the documentary was generally a good portrayal of the penguins’ lives, though if a bit on the sentimental side. He said it was inaccurate, however, to have the penguins appear as if they have a difficult life.

“Their life is what they’re designed for,” Todd said. “It’s not hard for them.”

Todd was responsible for designing and helping to build Sea World San Diego’s Penguin Encounter, which was home to the first breeding of Emperor penguins in captivity.

Emperor penguins require sub-freezing temperatures, Todd said, which is one of the reasons they are so hard to keep in captivity. The 25-degree penguin habitat at Sea World required thousands of pounds of ice to build and must be blanketed with 4,000 pounds of snow each day, he explained.

“You have to accommodate the creature,” Todd said.

Recently informed that another Emperor penguin chick had hatched at Sea World, Todd consulted his records and confirmed that he had brought the chick’s parents to Sea World nearly 40 years ago.

When he began researching Emperor penguins in the 1970s, very little was known about the bird, so most everything Todd did in the field was pioneering.

His Antarctic research began through his work with the National Science Foundation as an aviculturist and behavioral biologist. Once he started doing research in the Antarctic, Todd said he was captivated.

“The Antarctic is like a mistress,” Todd said. “Once she gets her icy fingers in you, you’re hooked.”

Todd’s interest in both penguins and waterfowl keeps him in two separate worlds. He said people who know him from his research with penguins often don’t know about his expertise in waterfowl and vice versa.

“I really have a foot in both hemispheres,” Todd laughed.

While in Blaine, Todd said he is interested in furthering his knowledge about local sea ducks, specifically the black scoter, which is a coastal bird that breeds in the sub-arctic.

Though scoters are rare even in the Blaine area, Todd said he has much more of a chance of seeing one here than back home in California.

Todd said he is also looking forward to catching up with old friends in the area. Maynard Axelson, a good friend from Mount Vernon, first told Todd about the WOW festival. Todd said he does not make it to many birding festivals due to his busy schedule.

The only downside to research, Todd said, is the traveling. Except for that, he said he has loved every minute of his experiences in the field, and the people with whom he has worked have been a major part his enjoyment.

“You can’t put a price on [the people],” Todd said.