A Few Words for a Few Birds

Alicia Young '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Does Bruce Chatwin have a vendetta against ocean birds? A reader might be persuaded to think so based on the forty-fourth chapter of In Patagonia. In this chapter, Chatwin recounts an ornithologist's description of the jackass penguins' habits and follows with his own brief but poignant feelings on the information:

The resident ornithologist, a severe young man, was studying the migration of the Jackass penguin. We talked late into the night, arguing whether or not we, too, have journeys mapped out in our central nervous system; it seemed the only way to account for our insane restlessness.

Next morning we rowed to the penguin colony on an island in the mid-river. This, roughly, is what the ornithologist said:

The Magellanic or Jackass Penguin winters in the South Atlantic off the coast of Brazil. On November 10th sharp, fishermen at Puerto Deseado see the advance guard swimming up-river. The birds station themselves on the islands and wait for the rest. The masses arrive on the 24th and start refurnishing their burrows. They have a taste for bright pebbles and collect a few to decorate the entrances.

Penguins are monogamous, faithful unto death. Each pair of occupies a minute stretch of territory and expels outsiders. The female lays from one to three eggs. There is no division of labour between the sexes: both go fishing and take turns to nurse the young. The colony breaks up with the cold weather in the first week of April.

The young had hatches and swelled to a size larger than their parents. We watched them waddle awkwardly to the shore and wallop into the water. In the seventeenth century, the explorer Sir John Narborough stood on the same spot and described them 'standing upright like little children in white aprons in company together'.

Albatrosses and penguins are the last birds I'd want to murder. [pp.86-87]

Like the chapter on the Council of the Cave (pp. 107-10), Chatwin's sparse prose demands reading between the lines and a careful examination of his final word on the subject. After hearing about the Council of the Cave and the Central Committee, Chatwin tell us, "Perhaps 'Central Committee' is a synonym for Beast" (p. 110), providing a one-line summation for this urban legend explanation of evil.


1. Why does Chatwin use the word "murder" in the final line of this chapter? How does this word operate next to Narborough's more sedate description of the penguins?

2. What about the penguins prevents Chatwin from wanting to murder them?

3. Can these penguins, whose larger colonies break up every year, be paralleled to the various nationalities who have scattered to Patagonia?

4. Where does the penguins' loyalty and monogamy fit into the problematic relationships that seem to trouble the people in In Patagonia?


Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Summit Books, 1977.

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 20 April 2005