King Penguins lying on a beach Laurent Demongin
King Penguins live on island beaches and hunt in the sea. Unlike Emperor and Adelie penguins, they do not spend months at a time living on the pack ice (a band of enormous floating ice blocks that encircles Antarctica).
Rather, adult King Penguin mates spend most of the year incubating their egg, and then feeding their chick. In November King Penguins form colonies on beaches, and attempt to attract a mate by squawking loudly and strutting around possible partners. These colonies can grow to as many as 600,000 penguins. That’s equal to the population of Washington DC!
Instead of building nests, King Penguins lay eggs directly on the ground, but must work quickly to keep them warm. King Penguin parents take turns incubating their egg by balancing it atop their feet, and then covering it with their stomach. While one parent incubates, the other must return to the sea to hunt fish and squid. Like all penguins, kings swim and dive very well. They can easily swim at 5 mph for hours on end, and dive hundreds of feet deep to catch fish.
Once their chick hatches, parents continue to take turns hunting until the chick is six weeks old. At this time, both parents hunt while all the chicks in the colony gather in groups called crèches. Gathering in dense crèches helps chicks in two ways. First, gathering in large groups helps ward off predatory birds like skuas and sheathbills. Secondly, huddling together conserves body heat and helps the chicks stay warm while their parents are away, sometimes for up to three weeks.
Chicks look very different from mature King Penguins. In fact, when explorers first came to the sub-Antarctic, they thought that King Penguin chicks were an entirely different species. They named them woolly penguins, because chicks have a fluffy, brown coat that keeps them warm through the winter months. This downy coat keeps the chicks so warm that they have to be careful to avoid overheating during the summer months.
After the parents return to the colony after hunting and avoiding predators like orca whales and leopard seals, they must find their chick amongst the massive crèches, quite a daunting task. In the largest colonies there can be as many as 50,000 chicks waiting for a meal. However, chicks and parents can immediately recognize one another’s squawks and whistles. This incredible communicative ability keeps the family intact after almost a month apart. After spending a year in their birth colony, the chicks are ready to learn to swim.
A juvenile King Penguin Martin Hale
A King Penguin incubates an egg Christophe Gourard