Macaroni penguin

Introduction to Macaroni Penguins

The most numerous of all the world’s penguins, the macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus) was named for the flamboyant plumage of its golden-orange forehead crest. Mid-18th century British explorers were reminded of an outlandish clothing fashion trend of their day called "maccaroni." "Macaroni" was also incorporated into the famous American Revolutionary War tune, "Yankee Doodle"—who "stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni." The phrase was co-opted from a British military tune used to mock the disheveled, disorganized and "naïve" "Yankees" with whom the British served in the French and Indian War.

Macaroni penguin Copyright © Joe Van Os
Macaroni penguin

Researchers estimate that upwards of 11 million breeding pairs of macaroni penguins populate the Southern Ocean. While the breeding numbers of the species are still relatively high, researchers have noticed an alarming decline in the population, possibly due to climate change and its effect on penguin food supplies.

Identifying Macaroni Penguins—Physical Characteristics

Macaroni penguins are one of the largest crested penguins (the closely-related royal penguin is slightly larger) with an average length of 28 inches (70cm) and an average weight of 12 pounds (5.5kg). Their weight fluctuates greatly due to fasting while breeding and molting. The male is slightly larger than the female.

Like most penguins they are a predominantly black and white bird; the head and upperparts are black and the underparts are white. The bill is bulbous and orange-brown, the eyes red, and a patch of pinkish bare skin extends from the base of the bill to the eye. The legs and feet are pink. Both males and females sport their signature golden-orange crests, which extend from the forehead and sweep backward above each eye. Juvenile plumage is duller, the bill is dark and the crest is usually not developed.

In the field they can be confused with rockhopper and royal penguins, although the home range of royal penguins rarely overlaps the range of macaronis.

Distribution and Migration of Macaroni Penguins

Macaroni penguins are seen on TravelWild cruises on the sub–Antarctic Islands and, occasionally, on the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula and its adjacent islands. The largest breeding populations are found on the islands of South Georgia, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard and McDonald.

When not breeding or molting the penguins are pelagic, living on the open ocean and migrating long distances in the winter (April–September). At sea they are sometimes seen off the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina. A 2009 study found that macaroni penguins from Kerguelen travelled over 6,000 miles (10,000km) in the central Indian Ocean. During the non-breeding/molting season, it is rare to see a macaroni penguin on land.

Macaroni Penguin Habitat

Macaroni penguins at Royal Bay, South Georgia Copyright © Joe Van Os
Macaroni penguins at Royal Bay, South Georgia

Macaroni penguins breed among rocky slopes and outcrops, along beaches, and among dense grassy tussocks in very noisy colonies. On some sub-Antarctic islands their nest sites can be on steep, high mountains below towering glaciers. These sites are often easily spotted—the areas have been denuded by penguins pulling grass out of the tussock, as well as by the effects of over-fertilization from the nitrogen in their droppings. When not breeding or molting they live on the open ocean.

Macaroni Penguin Diet

Macaroni penguins feed mainly on krill, but will occasionally eat other small crustaceans, fish and squid. Prey is captured by diving to depths of 50–200 feet. Dives rarely exceed two minutes in duration.

Macaroni Penguin Behavior

Macaroni penguins often swim with a porpoising action, travelling just below the water surface and periodically leaping into the air to take short breaths without slowing. Their speed averages six miles per hour (10km/h). “Porpoising” helps them avoid predation by fur seals, leopard seals and killer whales. On land their main predator is the skua which snatches unguarded penguin eggs and chicks from nests. Kelp gulls and giant petrels are also a threat.

Like most penguins they have an elaborate set of calls, bows and displays to keep their pair bond secure and to aid in locating, identifying and feeding their chicks.

On land during the breeding season, macaronis devote much time to preening to remove dirt and parasites and to maintain the waterproof condition of their plumage. Mutual preening also helps to reinforce the pair bond.

Macaroni Penguin Breeding and Mating

During October macaroni penguins go ashore following a winter at sea. They assemble in huge colonies, first to locate or to choose mates, then to incubate eggs and rear their chicks. Females begin breeding around age five while males start later, around age six. Studies have shown three-quarters of these penguins will keep the same mate and often return to the same nest site.

Nests are scraped out of mud or gravel on rocky coasts and low cliffs and lined with a few small stones. On South Georgia some birds nest on flattened tussock grass. Two eggs are laid in early November. The first one is small and rarely hatches or, if it does, the chick is rarely raised to maturity.

Macaroni penguins nesting Copyright © Joe Van Os
Macaroni penguins nesting

Incubation duties are divided into three shifts. During the first shift of 12 days, both parents incubate the egg, then the male goes to sea leaving the female to do the second shift alone. Upon the male’s return for the third shift, the female goes to sea and does not return until the chicks have hatched—sometimes a chick may have to wait for up to a week after hatching to receive its first meal.

Hatching occurs after 35 (+/-) days of incubation. The male broods the chick while the female forages, returning and regurgitating food daily, for approximately 25 days. The time spent foraging increases as the chick grows larger and demands more food. Macaroni penguins rarely hunt farther than 25 miles away from the nest site during chick rearing. Parents locate their chick using the nest and vocalizations as identifiers.

At the end of 25 days, the chick has developed a thick fluffy coat of feathers called the mesoptile plumage. These special feathers keep it warm enough to allow both parents to be away foraging for food. The chicks gather in large crèches for protection from predators and cold weather. Their feathers are only effective when dry, so the chick is unable to forage. Rain can be a threat, as can excessive heat in the crèches.

At 11 weeks of age, chicks develop their waterproof plumage and they fledge to sea. They still lack the crests of the adults but have a scattering of small yellow feathers; the crest develops fully by 3–4 years of age, a year or two before breeding.

After the chicks fledge, adults spend around three weeks at sea replenishing their supply of fat in preparation for their annual molt. It is critical that the bird have adequate fat reserves prior to molting, as they do not feed during the 25-day molt and will temporarily lose many of their insulating feathers. Molting is necessary to replace worn feathers in order to maintain plumage that is waterproof and insulating. While molting, the penguins are relatively sedentary and remain ashore without eating. In April, the adults leave the breeding/molting site and head to sea.

Macaroni Penguin Social Behavior

Macaroni penguins tend toward monogamy and pair bonds are long lasting. Each year the pair reunites at the same nest location, recognizing each other by their calls. The birds are very vocal and showy during mating displays, communicating by complex ritual behaviors, such as head and flipper waving, trumpeting, bowing, gesturing and preening.

Pairs often perform the “ecstatic display” during which a penguin bows forward, making loud throbbing sounds, and then extends its head and neck upward until the neck and beak are vertical. The bird then waves its head from side to side while braying loudly.

Macaroni penguins are thought to live between 8 and 15 years.

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