A strange cycle

One of the highlights of a visit to South Georgia is always the large number of King Penguins. About half a million breeding pairs spread out over several large colonies. No matter what time you arrive here, there will always be many adults and chicks in the colony. This is caused by the strange breeding cycle of these birds.

A 2-3-month-old King Penguin chick

Just like their relatives, the Emperor Penguins, King Penguin chicks take a long time to fledge, and this requires a unique breeding cycle.  They start in November with their first breeding cycle. After a breeding period of nearly two months, a long chick rearing face begins.  When the chick is almost big enough to start moulting to their first real coat of feathers, winter kicks in. This means the parents can’t feed them as much as they want to and the chicks will have to survive the next months. When spring comes, and the food returns, the parents will continue feeding the young until it’s ready to fledge. However, by this time, the whole cycle has taken over 12 months so the birds cannot start again at the same time as they did last year.

King Penguin chicks from two different cycles next to each other.

However, this doesn’t keep them from trying again. Even though they only have around three months before winter starts, they will still start a new cycle. This time the chicks are petite by the end of April, at the onset of winter. Many of them will not make it through this winter, giving the parents the opportunity to start next November again with a new attempt. Most pairs have one successful and one unsuccessful breeding attempt in two years, while few make two successful breeding attempts in three years.

Being this late in the season, we saw a few of those tiny chicks, who undoubtedly would have a tough time in winter.

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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