King penguins don't make a nest, not even the
perfunctory small pile of stones that other penguin species go for.
Instead, they lay only one egg at a time and carry it
around on their feet covered with a flap of abdominal skin called the brood
patch. It is looked after in this manner for the whole of the average 55
day incubation period, being shuffled from one parent to the other every
6-18 days. When relieved of the egg, that parent then goes off to sea on
an extended food foraging trip.
Upon hatching, the chicks continue to be protected on
the parents feet and the brood patch for another 30-40 days after which
time, they are large enough to be able to regulate their temperature for
themselves. It can still be a wait of many days, 3-14 between parents
swapping duties, so the chick has to wait some considerable time between
King penguins live on Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands
rather than in the deep south. There are two distinct groups, "early breeders"
and "late breeders". Early breeders lay eggs in November which hatch
around mid-January, the chicks are reared and reach about 90% of adult weight
by April when they are independent.
Late breeders lay and incubate their eggs from January
until March. Parental visits become fewer and further between over the winter
and the chicks are left to survive blizzards and severe conditions on their
own. They huddle together in crèches and keep alive by depleting their fat
reserves, the parents retuning to feed them about once every four to six
It can be as much as 3 months between feeds however
and a 5 month wait has even been endured by a surviving chick. The
chicks may lose up to 50% of their body weight in these intervals where
they wait for a parent to return and feed them.
Though harsh, the winter conditions are no where near what the emperor
penguins are enduring further south.
As food supplies improve in spring, so the parents are
able to return more frequently and then by December, the last of the chicks
have left to fend for themselves.
The parents will then moult, leave to go to sea for several
weeks to fatten up again and then become the late breeders for that season.
Any parents that have lost their eggs or chicks during
the winter will become that seasons early breeders.
In this unusual breeding cycle, king penguins usually
only average one chick every two years or at most two in a three year cycle.
The king penguin is restricted in range to ice free areas as a consequence
of having to feed its chick through the winter.