“Are penguins fish or birds?” Matt Sewell couldn’t believe the suggested question auto-filled by Google when he began research for his new book Penguins and Other Seabirds. Were enough people asking that question for it to show up in the search engine? He began his book with a new-found motivation: to educate the world about the mysterious flightless birds, and a few other seabirds along the way.
Sewell is not only an avid ornithologist, he is also a talented illustrator of several bird books. In this slim gift book, he pairs whimsical watercolor illustrations of fifty of the world’s penguins and seabirds with helpful, entertaining and accessible descriptions of the species. Each image is full of personality and life, illustrating the character traits enumerated in the text. A rather smug looking Gentoo Penguin, we learn, is the penguin with the longest tail. The tail is actually not that long, but, Sewell writes, “in the subtly different world of the penguins, anything a tiny bit different is deemed a distinguishing feature and worth celebrating.”
Sewell celebrates each distinct trait of his fifty birds with character and charm. A bright-eyed Striated Caracara is “a highly intelligent bird who would rather use his wit over his wings.” His Rockhopper Penguins are unmistakable “leather-clad Heavy Metalers in black denim and cheap eyeliner, with wet-look gel spikes on top and a bleached-blonde shoulder-length mullet at the back.” Sewell’s Snowy Sheathbill looks a bit self-conscious as he is described as “a really weird bird that looks part seagull but without the webbed feet, pigeonlike in shape but with turkey-esque wattles and a cutthroat dagger for a beak.”
By the end of the book, readers will have been entertained and enlightened, not only as to whether penguins are birds, but to the existence of other species, such as the Rhinoceros Auklet, also known as the Unicorn Puffin. In the final pages the illustrations are collected into a checklist, which birders of all ages can use to keep track of their findings around the world, from the Magnificent Frigatebird to Sewell’s favorite: the Smew.