Claim Edinburgh Zoo employs penguin erector after planes fly over is FFS

Ferret Fact Service | Scotland's impartial fact check project GERS

A story about Edinburgh penguins has gone viral again after being shared on Instagram.

The claim was liked more than 7,800 times on the platform, after being shared by a page called ‘scottishsocial’ on 16 August. 

Boy in the pub was telling me his job is every time a plane flys [sic] over Edinburgh zoo the penguins can’t take their eyes off it and end up falling over n [sic] he just goes round picking them up, 38 penguins 2000 flights a day.”

Boy in the pub was telling me his job is every time a plane flys [sic] over Edinburgh zoo the penguins can’t take their eyes off it and end up falling over n [sic] he just goes round picking them up, 38 penguins 2000 flights a day.

Social media post

Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it FFS.

Evidence

This version of the claim was originally posted on Twitter in 2018, but similar claims have been made for many years about penguins’ response to aircraft above them. 

Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots were said to have made the claim that penguins topple over when looking up at planes during the Falklands War in 1982. 

It has appeared on the internet in different forms since the mid 1990s, for example in this Washington Post article from 1995, which cites “a Mexican newspaper”. The article claims RAF pilots devised “what they consider to be a marvelous new game”.

“The pilots search out a beach where the birds are gathered and fly slowly along at the water’s edge. Perhaps 10,000 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 come back directly to the penguin colony and overfly it. Heads go up, up, up, and 10,000 penguins fall over gently onto their backs.”

This alleged phenomenon was even checked out by a British Antarctic Survey mission, after concerns that planes were interfering with penguins’ breeding patterns. A five-week trip monitored 1,000 king penguins on the island of South Georgia.

The research team found no evidence of it happening. Dr Richard Stone, of the British Antarctic Survey, told The Guardian newspaper in 2001, that “not a single bird fell over after 17 flights”.

“We saw birds moving away from the noise,” he was quoted as saying. “As it [the helicopter] approached, the birds went quiet. They didn’t appear to turn around and look.”

As for Scotland’s penguin erector position, Edinburgh Zoo has confirmed that no such job exists, saying: “It’s a very popular rumour, but penguins do not track planes as they fly overhead. Any clumsy penguin behaviour tends to be unrelated to aircraft”.

There are actually more than 100 gentoo, king and rockhopper penguins at the zoo, according to its website. 

The claim also gives false statistics on the number of flights which go over the zoo each day. It is less than four miles from Edinburgh Airport.

The airport’s website states that there were 131,000 aircraft movements in 2019, the latest statistics available. Aircraft movements are defined as either the landing or taking off of an aircraft. This would work out at about 358 flights per day either leaving or arriving, not 2,000 as the claim suggests. 

Ferret Fact Service verdict: FFS! (For Fact’s Sake)

While it is tempting to believe, this claim is completely false. There is no job to pick up plane-addled penguins at Edinburgh Zoo, and there is no evidence penguins are prone to falling over while looking at aircraft overhead. It is a variation of a long-held urban myth which dates back to at least the 1980s, and has appeared online in various forms since the mid 1990s.

FFS! (For Facts’ Sake) – The claim is baseless, ridiculous and/or logically impossible!

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Go to ideas.theferret.scot, email us at factcheck@theferret.scot or join our Facebook group.

Photo thanks to iStock/alexandro900.

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