Antarctic birds: Macaroni Penguin

An excellent question for a pub quiz on South Georgia and Antarctica (in fact, I’ve used this question already for that purpose): “What is the most common species of penguin on South Georgia?” Many people who have just visited the island will think it’s the King Penguin as that is by far the most common species they’ve seen. It’s not true, however. There are around 450.000 breeding pairs of Kings, not a small number, but there are 1.000.000 breeding pairs of Macaroni Penguins.

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Macaroni Penguins at Cooper Bay

Then how come many people see King Penguins as the penguin species of Antarctica? There are several reasons for that. First of all, King Penguins are most common on the north/eastern side of the island, which is the part of the island that is visited most. Macaronis however, are much more abundant on the seldom-visited southern/western part of the island. Secondly, where King Penguins breed on flat coastal plains which are relatively easily accessible for tourists (once you’ve passed the waves on the beach that is), Macaroni Penguins climb much higher and breed in between the Tussock Grass hummocks. This is much more challenging terrain to get to, especially as it is more difficult to find the aggressive Antarctic Fur Seals in between.

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Macaroni Penguins at the colony in between the Tussock at Cooper Bay

Finally, the two more or less accessible Macaroni colonies that I know on the northern or eastern shores are quite exposed, making zodiac cruising or landing very difficult if the conditions are not ideal (which they often are not). Because of these factors, we usually only see a few Macaroni Penguins during a trip to South Georgia, despite it being the most common species of penguin.

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Portrait of a Macaroni Penguin

The Macaroni Penguin is one of the crested penguins, as can be clearly seen in the picture above. Their name doesn’t have anything to do with their food (how would a penguin order macaroni anyhow), but with a fashion trend from the mid 18th century. At this time, in certain circles, it was fashionable to stick yellow feathers in one’s hat, and this penguin reminded the English discoverers who named this penguin of this flamboyant fashion style.

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Find ‘Kevin’, the Macaroni Penguin of Half Moon Island

As said before, the Macaroni Penguin isn’t really an Antarctic species, but there are a few stubborn individuals who do not seem to care about what we think. One of them is Kevin, the Macaroni of Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands, just north of Antarctica. Here there is a large Chinstrap Penguin colony with one lonely Macaroni in between. It returns every year to the same colony, probably hoping to find a mate this time. Who thinks that a slightly larger and stockier penguin with a bright red beak and yellow feathers would easily stick out in a colony of entirely black and white Chinstraps, is mistaken. He knows to hide very well between his chinstrap mates, and it often takes quite some work to find him and explaining before others also see him.

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Sometimes Kevin tries to mate with one of his Chinstrap-friends. Quite unsuccessfully though, especially when one tries from the wrong side…

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