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Are They Hard To Identify? 6 Birds That Look Like Penguins

Penguins are amazing and adorable birds. Instead of taking to the air, these aquatic birds “fly” underwater! Incredibly, they also live in some of the coldest places on the planet.

We love watching them in zoos, but where do penguins live in the wild? Are there other birds that resemble penguins?

 

What Do Penguins Look Like?

Penguins are pretty easy to recognize. No other birds have such small, tight-fitting feathers, and none have wings that look like flippers! On land, penguins also move in a couple of different ways. They can lay down on snow and use their wings to push themselves along, or penguins can take one small step at a time to walk and waddle forward.

Penguins on a beach

Most penguins are also neatly plumaged with a “natural tuxedo.” Although the Little Penguin is blue-gray above and white below, the other 16 penguin species have jet black upperparts, and bright white underparts.

Some species also have a black line on their chest and sides, while the big King and Emperor Penguins have burnt orange or pale peach coloring on their chests.

Several penguin species have yellow feathers on their heads, a couple have pointed, colorful beaks, and others have rather short and stubby beaks.

Penguins are unique, but there are some other birds that look like them. However, penguins only live in the Southern Hemisphere, and mostly near Antarctica. If you see a “penguin” in the North Atlantic or on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, there’s a pretty good chance you are seeing one of the birds mentioned below.

 

Birds That Look Like Penguins

Horned Puffin

Horned Puffin

Photograph © Alan Wilson

Horned Puffins are black and white birds with a big, rounded head and a large, arched beak. They are around the same size as a Blue-winged Teal, or a Little Penguin (the smallest penguin species).

Breeding plumaged Horned Puffins have a white face with a small black tuft above each eye, and a yellow and orange beak.

Unlike penguins, Horned Puffins can fly. In flight, they look sort of like a black and white football!

In winter, this species has a dusky face, and a black and orange beak. It forages a lot like penguins, swimming underwater to catch small fish, squid, and other small sea creatures.

Horned Puffins nest on cliffs in in the Bering Sea, southern Alaska, northwestern Canada, and eastern Russia. In winter, these cute birds mostly fish in waters far from land but can occasionally occur as far south as northern Japan, Washington state, and California.

 

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffins are small, foot long, black and white seabirds. Like penguins, they are mostly black above and white below, but are much smaller and can fly.

In summer, they also have a white face, and a striking, arched, orange beak with a dark blue-gray base. In winter, Atlantic Puffins have a dark gray face and a dusky gray and orange beak. Like other puffins, when flying, this species looks more or less like a football.

Like penguins, they swim underwater to catch lots of Sand Eels and other small fish. Atlantic Puffins breed in small burrows on cliffs in the northern Atlantic Ocean.

In summer, they live as far south as Maine, the British Isles, and parts of northern France. In the fall, they eventually move to the open waters of the North Atlantic. We can see them as far south as waters off the coast of Virginia and the Canary Islands.

 

Dovekie

Dovekie

Dovekies are small, black and white seabirds around the same size as a European Starling. Their black and white plumage might be similar to a penguin but Dovekies are much smaller. Like other members of the Alcid family, they can also fly.

Dovekies have a rounded head and a stubby beak that gives them a vague, parrot-like shape.

In summer, these unique seabirds have a jet black head, beak, and upperparts, and a white belly. They also have a few small white markings on their wings, and a tiny white spot above each eye.

In winter, Dovekies have more white on their underparts, especially on the sides of their head. These small seabirds breed on cliffs and among boulders in Arctic areas of the northern Atlantic Ocean.

In winter, they occur on the open ocean south to Massachusetts, England, and Holland. Dovekies dive beneath the waves to forage for copepods, other crustaceans, and small fish.

 

Thick-billed Murre

Thick-billed Murre

Thick-billed Murres are black and white seabirds around the same size as a small duck. They look a lot like a small penguin but Thick-billed Murres can fly, and they only live in the Northern Hemisphere.

In summer, they have a jet black head and upperparts, and bright white underparts. Thick-billed Murres also have a fairly stout, sharp beak, and a narrow white line that goes from their beak to their face. They also have a white line on the back part of their wings.

In winter, this species also has white on its throat. Big colonies of Thick-billed Murres breed on cliffs in the Arctic, and in the northern Atlantic and northern Pacific Oceans. In winter, they mostly occur in open and coastal waters to northern Japan, Massachusetts, and western Canada.

Thick-billed Murres eat lots of small mollusks and small fish. When foraging, they can dive as deep as 300 and even 400 feet!

Common Murre

Common Murre

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

Common Murres are northern seabirds around the same size as a small duck. They have sharp, straight beaks, and are sooty brown-black above and white below. They also have some dusky marks on their flanks, and a narrow white line on the rear part of each wing.

In summer, Common Murres have a dark throat and some also have narrow white spectacles. In winter, they have a white throat and white on each side of their head. They also have a narrow black line on their face.

This species resembles a penguin but lives in parts of the Arctic and northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Unlike any penguin, Common Murres can also fly.

It mostly breeds on cliffs, and winters in open and coastal waters south to Spain, Virginia, California, and Japan. This common seabird species eats small fish and invertebrates and can dive 300 feet deep to find them!

 

Razorbill

Razorbills

© Jason Thompson

Razorbills are chunky, northern seabirds with a stout, wedge-shaped beak. Perhaps more than any other member of the Alcid family, this species looks like a penguin.

Like penguins, Razorbills are black above and white below, and also have a beak very similar to some penguin species. However, they are much smaller (the size of a small duck), live in the northern Atlantic Ocean, and can fly.

In summer, Razorbills have a black throat, narrow white line above their beak, and some white edging on the back part of their wings. They also have a white band on their grooved beak.

In winter, this species has a white throat, and some white on the back part of its face. Razorbills dive 300 feet deep to feed on Capelin, Herring, and other small fish. They breed on islands and cliffs in the northern Atlantic Ocean, and winter in open and coastal waters to Massachusetts, and northern Africa.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Alcids related to penguins?

No, although they look similar, Alcids are not related to penguins. They are in the same order as gulls and sandpipers.

Do auks still exist?

Yes, auks still exist. Alcid species are also known as “auks.” However, the Great Auk is gone.

When did Great Auks go extinct?

Great Auks went extinct on July 3, 1844 when fishermen killed the last pair of Great Auks on Eldey Island, Iceland.

Can you see penguins in the northern hemisphere? (in the wild)

No, you cannot see penguins in the northern hemisphere (in the wild). The Galapagos Penguin lives on the equator and the other species live in the southern hemisphere.

Why do penguins only live in the southern hemisphere?

Penguins only live in the southern hemisphere because they evolved near Australia, and became adapted to cold waters. Although one species has reached the Galapagos Islands, warm tropical waters probably prevent them from spreading further north.

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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