July 07, 2016
By Anne Tieber
Zoological Manager of Birds
They have excellent posture – these upright, dignified, handsome birds—and when they emerge from the sea pristine and glistening, there can be no cleaner or more elegant creature around. The king penguin is often the animal we picture when we think of penguins. It is one of the most memorable animals Captain Cook saw during his 1775 voyage to Antarctica.
The second largest of the penguin species, a king penguin typically weighs around 33 pounds and stands three feet tall. Its lush feathers protect it from bitter sub-Antarctic weather. The plumage has four layers---the outer layer is oily and waterproof and encloses three downy layers for insulation.
Little wonder, the king penguin can hold its breath for 23 minutes and dive over 1,600 feet deep in search of food—no matter the temperature of the water.
In the wild, king penguins form huge colonies on slopes near beaches so that they will have access to the sea. Because king penguins live most of their lives at sea but return to land to breed and molt, they can tell researchers a great deal about marine health. They are susceptible to the effects of ocean pollution and climate change. While not endangered, the king penguin like all 18 species of penguins, are legally protected from hunting and egg collecting by the Antarctic Treaty signed by 12 nations in 1959.
At the Saint Louis Zoo, king penguins are ambassadors of their kind, and that’s why we were thrilled to welcome two king penguin chicks, females named Andi and Gerti, on January 2, 2016, and November 30, 2015. They are the only king chicks to hatch this breeding season at Penguin Puffin Coast and one of only 14 to hatch since the habitat opened in 2003.
The king penguin’s breeding habits are fascinating—beginning with their courting rituals. A male expresses his interest by opening his flippers and emitting a “trumpeting” call while stretching his head up, throwing his head back and finally bowing. A female then chooses a mate by answering his call.
King penguins bond in a monogamous pair during breeding season and in the wild, breed twice every three years. Eggs are laid any time between November and April and each time a pair breeds, they lay one egg. The pair shares responsibility for that egg 24 hours a day, with both parents passing it back and forth to each other’s feet where it is warmed between a parent’s belly and feet for 60 days.
Once the chick has hatched, both parents care for it. Both parents feed offspring regurgitated food consisting of partially digested fish pieces by putting it directly into the chick’s mouth. Each adult pair recognizes and feeds only their own chick. Parents are able to identify that chick by its distinctive call.
At the Zoo, chicks are weighed behind the scenes to monitor their growth. After weighing each chick, the keeper checks and cleans the young bird and then places each chick back with its mom and dad for feeding, warmth and protection.
As the chick matures, the Zoo’s keepers bring the young birds to a special behind-the-scenes rearing area for a “penguin kindergarten,” where they learn new skills, like eating whole fish from a keeper’s hand and from a tray of ice. At this age, they are able to step onto a scale with some training from the keeper. After a few more weeks, they molt out of their downy feathers and are ready to swim. Swimming lessons start with getting their feet wet in a small amount of water, then the keepers slowly fill the pool so they can get the hang of floating and eventually swimming.
In the wild, chicks depend on their parents for survival between hatching and the growth of their waterproof feathers. King penguin chicks were sometimes known as “woolly penguins” by the early explorers as the thick brown down of the juveniles looks like wool on a sheep. Some sailors even thought they were a separate species!
Once a chick has feathered out—or fledged—it enters the sea and becomes independent. It takes about nine months for the chick to be fully fledged and up to 14 months for it to become independent. That won’t happen for our New Year’s chick until 2017 rolls round.