The King penguin is the second largest species of penguin, second only to the related Emperor Penguin. They stand about 90cm high and weigh 11-16kg (24-35 lbs). Kings eat mainly small fish and squid, which they chase and catch at great depths. The auricular patch (ear patch) on the Kings is of a darker orangey yellow, it comes to a closed point at the chin of the bird and the top of the breast is also the same orange colour. While foraging they repeatedly dive to over 100m (350 ft), often to twice that depth, the only penguin that dives deeper is the Emperor. The population is around 2,23 million pairs and increasing. Many of the breeding colonies contain in excess of 100,000. King Penguins appear to like company.
The chicks of the King penguin are covered in a brown down and sometimes referred to as ‘Oakum Boys’ because of the resemblance to the youths who packed the seams of wooden boats with Oakum, a tarred fibre, to make them watertight, wisps of the oakum stuck to them, so they were brown and fluffy and early seamen thought the King Penguin chicks looked the same. Others thought they were another species of penguin altogether and called them Woolley penguins
King Penguins are serially monogamous, staying with their mate for the time it takes to rear their single chick, but this is an inordinately long time, some 14-16 months, this means that at most times during the austral summer season you will be able to see Kings courting, incubating eggs and feeding larger chicks. The cycle begins in September to November, when the birds come ashore to moult, they return to the sea to feed and come back to the beaches in November and December. The female lays a single egg, both parents share the incubation, the egg isn’t in a nest but on their feet. After 55 days the egg hatches and the almost reptilian chick sits on the feet of whichever parent is brooding it until just over a month passes and it becomes old enough to join the other chicks in crèches. By April the chick is almost full grown but it loses weight during the winter months when it is fed infrequently. As the parents find it easier to find food again the chick gains weight. By timing things this way, the chick is ready to go to sea and fend for itself at a time when the fishing is at its easiest, so the young bird has a better chance of survival.
King Penguins breed on many of the Sub-Antarctic islands between 45 and 55 degrees South. They have even been reported on islands that are part of Tierra del Fuego just off the coast of South America, but there is no evidence of them breeding there, they are however breeding on the Falklands, South Georgia, Macquarie, Crozet Islands and Heard Island, with vagrants reported in South Africa, and New Zealand and the South Sandwich Islands. In 1936 the Nature Protection Society released some King Penguins in the North of Norway at Gjesvaer and Røst on the Lofotens, but the last sighting was in 1949.
The King Penguin was hunted in the past for both its fat, meat and its skins during the 19 th & 20 th century by sealers and whalers. Today the population is increasing, some say by exploiting the gap left when the great whales were taken out of the food chain. In the water their main predator is the Leopard Seal and more recently, fur sealsand on land the eggs and chicks are taken by brown skuas and giant petrels while sheathbills will scavenge on dead chicks
Text © B & C Alexander