Wildlife Watch: Magellanic Penguins

February 19, 2014

There is little in nature as enduring as a penguin. They somewhat resemble little humans in tuxedos and walk like Charlie Chaplain of the silent movie era. Actually, penguins were walking on earth and ice and swimming in the southern Oceans long before the days of Charlie Chaplain, so it should be said he walked like a penguin as opposed to the other way around. There are a few species of penguins known to occur at the Southern tip of South America but only the Magellanic penguin is a common resident.  

The Magellanic penguin is a fairly small penguin and quite closely resembles other species like Humboldt, African and the Galapagos penguin. These species are all similar in appearance and size and the call is somewhat like the bray of a donkey. In fact, the African penguin was named “jack-ass” penguin until a decade or so ago, when it was changed to African as it is the only penguin found in Africa.

The Magellanic penguin nests in large colonies during the Austral summer. Pairs of these taxa are monogamous and the Wildlife Conservation Society has data reporting a pair of Magellanic penguins with the same partner for 16 straight years. Quite a testimony considering the penguins head to sea each fall and remain at sea separated until the following spring when they arrive at the same shore, find each other, most likely by call, only to pair bond, mate, incubate eggs and raise chicks once again.

Magellanic penguins nest on the ground under bushes and in many locations they dig a burrow which they use as a nesting chamber. Here, the incubating adult is protected from the sun and heat of the Austral summer and the burrow also allows for greater protection of their eggs and chicks from marauding skuas. Two eggs are typically laid and the chicks are fed copious amounts of regurgitated food and the chicks grow rapidly.  If food is not readily available during chick rearing, only one chick may be successfully fledged. Fledging of penguins, which are non-flying birds, is when the chicks learn to swim. Penguin chicks actually appear larger than their parents as the first feathers to grow in are the down feathers and thus they make the penguin appear like a “Michelin” penguin. On adults, the mature feathers hold the down feathers underneath, thus the adults resemble slick black and white torpedoes in the water. The down feathers of the young make them look much larger than the adults until their outer feathers grow in.

The Magellanic penguin spends the entire Austral winter at sea. They feed on a variety of prey species including fish, krill, squid and crustaceans.  

I've spent many hours in penguin colonies and never tire of such incredible experiences. Watching hundreds or even thousands of young Magellanic penguins learning to swim or adults returning from the sea, bulging with food for their chicks, only to run a gauntlet of pecking neighbor penguins in order to proceed from the water to their burrow, which may be deep in the colony. The noise, the activity and the smell of a penguin colony will not soon be forgotten. Your excursion to the Magellanic penguin colony and to see South America's most accessible colony of King penguins during International Expeditions' Patagonia tours may well be one of the highlights of your trip!
 
Naturalist Greg Greer is a favorite among IE travelers, and has gained a reputation for his friendliness and good humor, along with his incomparable knowledge of natural history. Greg's photos and articles have been widely published in books and magazines, including Georgia Outdoor News, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Alabama Outdoor News, Riversedge and Southern Wildlife.