King penguins from Zoology of the Voyage of HMZ Erebus & Terror, Birds of New Zealand,1846-1875
Penguins were first discovered in 1520 during Magellan’s circumnavigation; the expedition historian, Pigafetta, called them “strange geese”; “we discovered two islands full of geese and goslings and sea wolves. The great number of these goslings there were cannot be estimated, for we loaded all the ships with them in an hour. And these goslings are black and do not fly, and they live on fish. And were so fat that we did not pluck them but skinned them, and they have a beak like a crows.”
The first King penguins brought to the notice of science were obtained in 1778, according to Oliver. They were known to the sealers on Macquaries Island and specimens were collected and brought to England in 1815. At that date there was a colony at the north end of the island, estimated to be 30 or 40 acres in extent. The King penguin was for some years ruthlessly killed by sealers for its oil and this wholesale slaugher resulted in the destruction of this immense colony.
King penguins breed on many of the subantarctic islands between 46º and 55ºS. King penguins form colonies that range in size from less than 30 birds to hundreds of thousands of birds. The colonies occupy beaches, and valleys and moraines free of snow and ice, prefering level ground near the sea. Eggs are laid from November to April. Both parents share incubation of the egg and brooding of the chick, which takes approximately 15 weeks. King penguins have no nests and their eggs are incubated on the adults’ feet. Chicks are fully fledged after nine months.
Immature and non–breeding birds disperse and travel far from breeding localities. However, chicks remain in colonies or creches throughout the year and breeding adults return to feed chicks on an irregular basis throughout the winter. The chicks fast for long periods between meals while the adults are away feeding at sea.
King penguins forage for squid and fish at the Antarctic Polar Front (where Antarctic and subantarctic surface waters meet). They feed by pursuit-diving, using their flippers to “fly” underwater.
At sea, predators of king penguins include Leopard seals and killer whales. In the colonies, skuas, sheathbills and giant petrels take eggs and young birds.
A new detailed study of the lives of young king penguins in creches published in the current, October 2005, journal Animal Behavior found that young penguins at the periphery of the crèches are at such high risk for bullying and predation that they never fully go to sleep. Instead, the chicks go into a sort of half-sleep, half-awake mode where they must open and close their eyes throughout what has been termed a "vigilant sleep" cycle. "Sleeping penguins alternate periods of eye closure with short periods of eye-opening, referred to as 'peeks' in their vigilant sleep," explained Michel Gauthier-Clerc, one of the study's authors. "Despite being in a sleeping posture during vigilant sleep, penguins may scan their surrounding environment."
Gauthier-Clerc, a scientist at the Tour du Valat Biology Station in Arles, France, and his colleagues studied over 16,000 king penguins located on Possession Island, Antarctica.
Chicks abandoned by one or both of their parents frequently were pecked or bashed around by the flippers of other adult penguins. These chicks ran toward other chicks until circular crèches formed.
Chicks scrambled for a position in the center of the crèche. Short, lightweight birds were pushed to the circle's outer limits where they often were attacked and eaten by giant petrals, brown skuas and kelp gulls. While chicks in the relatively warm and safe center of the crèche slept soundly, birds at the periphery only rested during their vigilant sleep cycles.
He indicated the chicks must live like this, and without food, for the entire winter, until the parents hopefully return at the end of the season with food.
90 cm., 13 kg., Glossy black head and sides of face, golden orange comma shaped wedge behind eye tapering towards orange upper breast, silver grey nape, shading to blue grey on back, bill long and curved at tip.
Nearest colony to New Zealand is Macquarie Islands. Regularly seen at New Zealand subantarctic islands in summer and autumn but only vagrants reach New Zealand mainland.
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Zoology of the Voyage of HMZ Erebus & Terror, Birds of New Zealand, Gray, G.R. and Sharpe, R. Bowdler, 1846-1875.
Shaw, George & Nodder, Fredick Polydor, The Naturalist’s Miscellany, 1790–1813.
Pigafetta, Antonio. Translated and Edited by R.A. Skelton Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation. (Dover Publications: New York, 1994) p.46.
King penguin from The Naturalist’s Miscellany, 1790–1813.
Sunday, 15 October, 2023; ver2023v1