Description & Characteristics:
King penguins breed on seven sub-Antarctic island groups with large populations on the Falkland Islands, Macquarie Islands, Heard Island, Iles Crozet and Marion island. They are not considered to be migratory. Despite their scientific name ‘patagonica,’ there is no evidence that they ever lived in Patagonia. Kings have been exploited in the past, but thankfully their numbers have increased in several localities and their conservation status now seems secure.
Distinctive features of the King penguin include a silvery-grey back with a blackish-brown head decorated with striking ear patches of bright golden-orange feathers. They are similar in appearance to the Emperor penguin but can be identified by the orange coloring on their breasts, more slender bodies and longer bills. As are most penguins, males and females are monomorphic, meaning they are similar in both size and appearance with behavioral clues providing the best means of identification.
King penguins feed by deep water pursuit-diving, using their flippers to propel themselves to depths of several hundred feet. Dives may last 15 minutes or more. Their diet includes small fish and squid, krill, and plankton. At sea, the key predators of King penguins are the Leopard seals and Killer whales who wait beneath the surface near the shore for unsuspecting birds. Opportunistic shore birds such as: skuas, sheathbills and Giant petrels often raid the colonies on land to take eggs and young birds when unattended by adults.
King penguin colonies are established on beaches, valleys and glacial moraines free of snow and ice; they prefer level ground near the sea. Highly gregarious birds, breeding Kings prefer to be in close proximity to each other. They generally avoid full-scale fighting although unwanted visitors may be warned off with a flipper slap or a peck. Immature and non-breeding birds do not associate with the breeding pairs, rather they disperse, traveling far from the breeding localities to hunt for food.
Kings are unique in that they have an unusually long breeding season. At any one time chicks of various ages are present in the colonies as eggs are laid anytime from November through April. From courtship through hatching of the eggs to the fledging of the chick may take 14 months or more making annual breeding impossible. Like the Emperors, King penguins’ eggs are incubated on the adults’ feet and not in nests. Both parents share in the care of the egg which takes approximately five weeks to hatch. Incubating birds are basically immobile although they can shuffle along slowly to avoid lumbering Southern Elephant seals which occasionally wander through the colonies. Once hatched, the dark brown downy chicks fast for long periods of time between meals while the adults are away feeding at sea. Chicks are reared right through the winter (huddling in ‘creches’ or nursery groups to keep warm) and only fledge the following summer. Early explorers erroneously thought King chicks to be a separate species from the adults calling them ‘Woolly penguins.’