King penguin

King Penguins—Distribution and Migration


King penguins can be seen on many of our Antarctica cruises, but you are most likely to see them on trips that include a visit to South Georgia where we go ashore and are greeted by several hundred thousand of them at Salisbury Plain and St. Andrews Bay. Over two million pairs are believe to comprise the global population of king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus). They breed on islands that are generally near to Antarctic Convergence (where the great oceans—the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian—meet the cold waters of the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica), although none are found south of 60° south latitude.

Identifying King Penguins—Physical Characteristics

The king penguin is the second largest of the living penguins, one of the two so-called “great penguin” species (the other is the emperor penguin). Although their backs appear black from a distance, it is immediately apparent up close that they are silver-gray. A narrow black edge separates this color from the white underparts that show a wash of orange in the breast feathers. Kings have large yellow-orange auricular (shaped like an ear) patches toward the back of the sides of their heads. Their large, slightly decurved bills develop dark yellow to pink mandible plates before breeding. Juveniles look similar except they are paler and, when they reach full adult plumage in their third year, they maintain their feather colors throughout the year (except for feather wear). As adults they can reach 34 to 38 inches in height and up to 35 pounds in weight, with the females looking the same but with generally smaller flippers, bills and toes.

 King penguin pair on South Georgia
King penguin pair on South Georgia

Chicks are born with dark brown nondescript plumage that becomes fluffier as they grow to adult size.

King Penguin Habitat

In the Falkland Islands, king penguins are found alongside sheep on pastureland. In South Georgia, they are found alongside reindeer imported years ago for whalers’ appetites. Breeding colonies of king penguins are found in areas of barren ground on beaches, in moraines, in shallow valleys and alongside watersheds that has not been disturbed by humans.

King Penguin Diet

In the summer, South Georgia king penguins feed primarily on fish that are in the mesopelagic zone (650–3,280 feet below sea level) of the Southern Ocean. They specialize in lantern fish that have extensive bioluminescent features on their bodies. At night, adult king penguins have regularly been found in the zone from 1,000–2,000 feet below sea level, while immatures were more likely to be found at 130–600 feet below sea level. In the winter, cephalopods, which include different shrimp species, increase to 64% of their diet.

King Penguin Behavior

 King penguin chick, St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia
King penguin chick, St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia

Arriving at their breeding ground is as simple as coming ashore, not nearly the ordeal endured by the fast-ice breeding Emperor Penguins. When they arrive, Kings immediately begin the process of attracting a mate. They point their bill high, trumpeting their call while holding their flippers out parallel. When they find a willing member of the opposite sex, they pair off, trumpet one after the other, waddle one behind the other through the colony (the "waddling gait"), some mutual bill rubbing, and then mate. This is one of a couple of displays that Kings exhibit that have a little bit of appeasement, a little bit of aggression, and a little bit of mutual attraction in them at various times. Another one of these behaviors includes a "face-to-face" or "high-pointing" display which can be described as a mimicking display. A flipper blow whereby a flipper aggressively hits another penguin has been described as a territorial behavior that increases toward the middle of the colony during brooding.

King Penguin Breeding & Mating

King penguins, like the other “great penguins,” build no nest and therefore lay one egg that is incubated and then guarded on the feet of the parents. At first, the eggs are white, but later harden and take on a light green hue while they are incubated for 55 days. After a guarding period while the chick sits on the parent’s feet and is fiercely protected, chicks gather into a crèche—a single large, very dense aggregation of all chicks in the colony protecting them against aerial predators (most often skuas) and adverse weather conditions.

 A sea of king penguins at Salisbury Plain
A sea of king penguins at Salisbury Plain

Unlike other penguin breeding cycles, the king penguin can successfully breed only twice every three years, with each cycle lasting 14 to 18 months. Forty to 59 weeks are spent rearing the chicks. Kings can lay eggs from November to March. If a chick hatches from an egg laid in November, it generally fledges 13 months later. The parents of that chick can then breed again the following February, and the second chick fledges late in the following February. But the parents of a chick fledged in February need to wait until the following November to breed again, stretching the cycle to three years because molting always takes place after fledging—and by that time it’s too late in the season to breed again.

Over the winter period king penguin chicks are fed every 39 days, which can stretch to more than four months—accounting for the need to accumulate large quantities of fat in the post-hatching period. Often the chick appears and is indeed fatter than the adults in the same colony.

King Penguin Social Behavior

King penguins are monogamous during the mating season but, as in other species that forage far from the colony in the off-season, they more often than not will change partners the following year. Another factor that can lead to this behavior is the differing molting cycle. A breeding bird generally molts one month after breeding, while non-breeders tend to molt earlier—a cycle that allows observers to see various phases of plumage/breeding during one visit to a colony.

Pair of king penguins
A pair of
king penguins
King penguin beach
King penguin beach
King penguins courtship display
Courtship display
King penguins swimming
King penguins
King penguins at St. Andrews Bay
King penguins at
St. Andrews Bay

All photos shown above were taken on past Antarctica cruises.

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