Do Penguins Fall Over Backwards?

During the 1982 war between Great Britain and Argentina over the disputed islands known (depending on what side you're on) as the Falklands or the Malvinas, British air force pilots reported seeing king penguins falling over as they tracked jets passing over their positions. For some reason, this claim attracted the attention of the public and it has been repeated in many places.

However, in December 2000, Richard Stone of the British Antarctic Survey went to the island of South Georgia to study the reaction of penguins to aircraft and reported nothing of the sort. The flightless birds apparently stop calling to one another and try to avoid the noise [1].

An interesting question is why the story became so popular. No doubt it is due in part to the comical image, but why do we find it funny? Possibly because penguins, with their upright bearing and bipedal gait, resemble humans more than many other animals.

[1] "King Penguin an upright fellow", Associated Press story, February 2, 2001.