Antarctic Birds: King Penguin

Okay, now I cheat a little as King Penguins are really not an Antarctic species, but much more a subantarctic species. It breeds on a range of subantarctic islands, with South Georgia being one that is regularly visited on trips that continue to the Antarctic Peninsula. Hence I decided to include some of the South Georgian birds as well in this series.

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King Penguins on South Georgia

Just like their slightly larger counterparts on Antarctica, the King Penguins also have a problem in raising their chicks in time. They are a little smaller, just under a meter tall, and a bit longer breeding season as the Emperor Penguins, but they still don’t have enough time to complete a full breeding cycle in one year. But where the Emperors ‘decided’ to start early and incubate in winter, the Kings have taken a different approach.

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King Penguin colony at Gold Harbour

King Penguins start their breeding cycle in early November and incubate their single egg for around two months. Then around three months of growth takes place. In April or May, winter starts in South Georgia. By now the chicks have grown a lot, but are just a few weeks shy of moulting into their waterproof feather coat that would allow them to go out to the ocean and feed for themselves. Where their fluffy brown down feathers are great to keep them warm on land, they are useless when they get wet. So they have to wait until they are big enough to moult to the more adult-like plumage. However, in winter the parents can’t get enough food to the chicks in winter (if any), so the chicks have to fast for 4-5 months during winter. This, of course, sets them back in their development and when the parents return, they need another 2 months of feeding before they are ready to moult into their first set of proper waterproof feathers.

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King Penguins at the colony of St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia

Now the parents often start with a new clutch. However, this time they can’t start before the end of January with the incubation, meaning there is only very little time for the chick to grow before winter sets in. This means the chicks are much smaller compared to those from the initial cycle and most of them won’t survive winter.

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A picture taken in April (just before the start of winter), see the difference in size between the chick that most likely hatched in mid-January in the front and the one that hatched just a few weeks before.

This complex breeding cycle, where parents at best raise two chicks every three years (but most often one every two years) means there will always be birds in the colony and always birds in different stages of their breeding cycle. For visitors, this means there is always a lot to see (and smell and hear) in those colonies. Often a highlight of a visit to South Georgia, especially when you’re lucky enough to visit one of the larger colonies like those in Salisbury Plain (with 60.000 breeding pairs) or St. Andrews Bay (with 150.000 breeding pairs).

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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