Penguin feeding baby

All About Penguins - Hatching & Care of Young


Chicks first "pip" by poking a small hole in the egg. They then chip at the shell until they can push off the top. Chicks take up to three days to chip their way out.



Fine down feathers cover most newly hatched chicks. (King penguin chicks hatch naked and grow down feathers within a few weeks.)

  • Down feathers of different species may be white, gray, black, or brown.
  • Down feathers are not waterproof, and chicks must remain out of the water until they acquire their juvenile plumage.
  • Adult plumage is acquired at about one year.



In all species, the coloration and markings of chicks separate them from adults. Scientists believe that the chicks' coloration elicits parental behavior from the adults, and that adult penguins do not perceive the young birds as competitors for mates or nesting sites.



The striking markings of emperor chicks may help to make the chicks more visible against the ice and snow, significant because emperors don't have individual nest sites where the young can be found.



Care of the Chicks

Chicks require attentive parents for survival. Both parents feed the chick regurgitated food. Adults recognize and feed only their own chick. Parents are able to identify their chick by its distinctive call.


Penguins feed their chicks regurgitated food.


During fieldwork at the Falkland Islands, a researcher observed a behavior never witnessed before—an older gentoo chick was recorded several times regurgitating food and feeding its younger sibling. It is not understood why the older chick would feed its younger sibling, as in theory such an action would likely reduce the older chick's chances of survival.

Male emperor penguins exhibit a feature unique among penguins. If the chick hatches before the female returns, the male, despite his fasting, is able to produce and secrete a curdlike substance from his esophagus to feed the chick, allowing for survival and growth for up to two weeks.



Parents brood chicks (keep them warm) by covering them with their brood patch.

In some species, partially grown chicks gather in groups called crèches. (Crèche is a French word for crib.)

  • Crèches provide some protection from predators and the elements.
  • Crèches were once thought to be functional nurseries with adults providing protection and communal care. This has proven not to be the case. Parents feed only their own chick.



  • King chicks are believed to form crèches for protection against harsh weather, predation, and aggressive, non-related adults.
    • The preferred place for a king penguin crèche to form is in the central parts of the colony.
    • A contributing factor for king chicks to join a crèche comes from harassment by non-related king penguin adults—lone chicks suffered the most aggression by non-related adults with those that had joined a crèche suffering the least.
    • The outer edges of a crèche are the most vulnerable to predation, and king chicks at the periphery appeared to be more vigilant when resting based on measuring the time they kept their eyes open.
    • At times intense competition flared between chicks for access to the center of the crèche. Chicks in the poorest health were pushed to the edges of the crèche where they were preyed upon by giant petrels.
    • When weather turned severe, king chicks formed larger, more condensed crèches. Spacing between individual chicks decreased and the chicks turned their backs to the wind and rain.
  • Temperate or subtropical crested penguins, like the macaroni or erect-crested, and penguins that nest in burrows, like the little or Humboldt, do not form crèches.
Chick "adoption" and "kidnapping"

During a two year study of emperor penguins in Antarctica, mainly non-breeding adult females and failed breeding female emperors often "kidnapped" and attempted to "adopt" chicks that clearly were not their own.

  • Out of 2,068 chicks hatched in the colony in 1993, adoption occurred in 351 cases. Adoption took place 185 times out of the 351 cases (53%) after the kidnapping of a chick or where a chick was found wandering around the colony. Chicks were one to two months old.
  • Most adoptions were short-lived events, lasting an average of 0.5 to 10 days. Attempts to feed the adopted chicks were seen in a minimum of about 15% of the cases (52 out of 351.) Long-term adoption was seen in only about 2% of the cases.
  • Most adoption attempts ended badly for the chick. "Readoption" of a chick to its true parents was only seen in rare instances where the chick was taken close to its true parents but was quickly abandoned by its kidnapper.

In contrast to most bird species, penguins generally maintain high levels of the hormone prolactin (PRL) throughout their entire breeding season, even those that may lose their eggs or chicks.

  • PRL is also referred to as the "parenting hormone" for its connection in maintaining the strong bond between a chick and parents. The kidnapping behavior witnessed in adult emperor penguins is believed to be a result of high levels of PRL.
  • Emperor adults that had their PRL levels artificially decreased (by the administration of bromocriptine) kidnapped chicks at a lower level than those that maintained higher levels of PRL.

At least 65 bird species have been known to "adopt" the young of a different species, including one instance where a king penguin attempted to raise a brown skua chick.

  • Adult brown skuas are natural enemies of king penguin chicks. Brown skua chicks, however, are brown with fuzzy down that may superficially resemble a newly hatched king penguin.
  • A king penguin adult was seen pushing a brown skua chick onto its feet, apparently attempting to brood the skua as it would a newly hatched king penguin chick.
  • Both skua parents attempted a rescue by harassing the penguin. Twice they succeeded in taking their chick back, however, the determined king fought back and retook the chick by beating its flippers and pecking at the parents. Human intervention by one of the observers finally ended the conflict and the chick was returned back to its real parents.



Chick Development

A chick depends on its parents for survival between hatching and the growth of its waterproof feathers before it can fledge (leave the colony to go forage at sea.)

  • This period may range from seven to nine weeks for Adélie chicks to 13 months for king penguin chicks.
  • For most penguin species, once a chick has replaced its juvenile down with waterproof feathers it is able to enter the water and becomes independent of its parents.
  • Some juvenile gentoo penguins that have undergone a complete molt, leave the colony to forage at sea during the day but return to the colony with some still receiving food from their parents for an average of 12 days following their first foraging trip at sea. Following this period of extended parental care the gentoo fledglings disperse from the colony.


How Do Penguins Feed Their Chicks?

••• Dgwildlife/iStock/GettyImages

Updated November 22, 2019

By Ezmeralda Lee

It is possible to learn many different things about winter survival from a penguin colony. One of the most interesting things to watch about penguins is how they raise their young. It has amazed many documentarists to watch how they hatch the eggs and then care for their young. One question that many people have about penguins is “How do they feed their chicks?" The answer is probably a lot different than you might think. The way that penguins feed their chicks is similar to a few different kinds of birds, such as flamingos and pigeons. However, penguins actually have multiple ways of taking care of their young.

Hunting for Food

Penguins all hunt for food in the same way. They can either catch it out of the water, or scrape the smaller food, like krill, off of the underside of the ice. Penguins usually eat krill, squid and fish. There are three main ways that penguins can feed their young.

Swallowing Food

The adult penguin swallows the food and saves it for later changing it into a form that the chicks can eat. There are three different ways to do this. The first way is regular regurgitation; the second way is similar to refrigerating the food whole; the third way is to create a kind of milk for the chicks from the digested food.

Regurgitating the Food

The adult penguin will partially digest the fish or other food inside their stomachs. This usually takes several hours. When the food has been digested enough, the penguin coughs the food back up and feeds it to the chick by pouring the mixture into the chick’s beak.

"Refrigerating" the Food

Another way that penguins feed their chicks is through refrigeration. The adult penguin swallows the fish or other food whole, and secretes it inside their stomach where it can be held for several days before the penguin has to feed it to the chick. The food is actually kept at the body temperature of the penguin, and the penguin has special enzymes that keep the food from going bad.

Penguin "Milk"

Some breeds of penguins can completely digest their fish and krill before they feed it to their chicks. When this happens, a form of oil is made from all of the nutrients from the food. This process takes several days to occur. The penguin then gives that fish “milk” to its young.

Feeding the Chick

The basic way of feeding the chick is always the same. The parent catches the fish, krill or squid, digests it or holds it in for a while, then when it is ready, it regurgitates the food into its beak, and then uses its beak as a kind of spoon to place the food into the baby penguin’s mouth.

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They feed on their own blood and "bird's milk"

Flamingo, when feeding his only chick, gracefully bends over him, slightly open beak, and food concentrate flows from the beak into the chick's mouth - a very nutritious broth: it contains a lot of proteins and 23 percent of blood. How blood gets into this strange "bird's milk" is still not clear.

Bird's milk has long been a symbol of the impossible. "Shall I give you some bird's milk?" - they say to a person who wants too much. nine0003

But now, after research done by ornithologists, this expression should be used with some caution. Many different curiosities in nature. There is also "bird's milk" among them. And you don't have to go far for it. Look at what pigeons feed their chicks - "bird's milk."

Newborn chicks do without nipples: they insert their long beaks into the throat of an adult pigeon and receive a portion of "bird's milk".

Shortly before the chicks hatch, a white mushy substance forms in the crop of the parent pigeons. It is called "goiter" or "bird's milk". In the goiter of domestic pigeons, “milk” is released for eighteen days, then the chicks switch to another diet. In wild pigeons, the "milk period" is longer. nine0003

Penguins, emperor and royal, also pamper their children with "bird's milk": it is produced in sufficient abundance by the esophagus and stomach of penguin parents - both male and female. "Milk" is nine times more nutritious than cow's: 60 percent protein and 28 percent fat!

In the sea, penguins only hunt for fish. And all the free time from hunting is spent on the shore. They gather here in large flocks. All together it is easier for them to endure the winter cold. And the winter in Antarctica is terrible: frosts are below eighty degrees. And snow storms. Yes, such that it’s better not to stay alone in such a storm: a mad wind will instantly knock you off your feet and pile a hundred kilograms of snow on you. The penguins know this. And when the storm begins, they gather in a heap and closely press against each other. It turns out a circle of penguins. Scientists have named it "turtle". The "turtle" spins all the time and slowly crawls where the wind blows. Outside, a snowstorm is raging, the frost is cracking, and inside such a circle it is warm, like in the summer in Africa. Thirty-six degrees! The storm will end and the penguins will disperse. nine0003

And in such and such a frost, penguins hatch chicks! True, where they “nest” at this time, the frosts are “small” - only 33 degrees. But snowstorms and strong winds that blow here all the time freeze the birds. How come their eggs don't get cold?

Penguins lay an egg on their paws. And so that it does not freeze from above, they cover it with a downy “blanket” - a special fold of skin on the belly.

First, the penguin holds the egg. Then the father penguin. But he does not just come and take the egg for himself, but bows to the penguin for a long time, flaps his wings, trembles with his tail - he is very worried. He himself looks at the egg, touches it with his beak and sings a special song to her: they say, go, dear, rest, I will replace you. And the penguin doesn’t have to be persuaded for a long time. She was very hungry: while holding the egg on her paws, she did not eat anything [19] . It's high time to refresh. And she leaves. For two months or more. To the ocean for fish. Sometimes he will leave for a hundred or two hundred kilometers, but he always finds his way back.

While the mother is hunting in the ocean, the baby penguin usually pecks out of the father penguin's bosom. It has a long thick down, like a fur coat. But for a long time, 40-50 days, the baby hides from the cold in his father's pocket, and then in his mother's, when she comes to replace her father.

The baby penguin, as soon as it gets out of the shell, asks for food. If the mother has not yet returned, the father feeds him "bird's milk". nine0003

Just imagine what a great feat it is to raise penguin chicks in Antarctica!

While the penguin was caring for the female, while she laid an egg for him, while she hunted in the ocean for 60-70 days, while the chick “was standing”, and then walked with the chick on its paws to the place where the flock hatches the chicks, after all, a hundred days have passed! And for a hundred days the penguin did not eat anything. It is not surprising that he loses weight almost twice during this time.

But now - finally! - a female comes and looks for her male in the pack. The task is also not easy: there are thousands of birds in the penguin colony (the largest once counted twelve and a half thousand penguins!). And she comes not alone, but hundreds of females approach the abandoned males in a solemn procession. There is a lot of noise and shouting, a lot of unfortunate misunderstandings happen before each finds her lawful spouse. nine0003

Here he hands her an expensive child (literally “expensive”, considering all the cares and “expenses” spent on it) from paw to paw. And he hobbles to the sea, to hunt. The mother feeds the chick at first every hour. But an amazing thing: the penguin brought only a kilogram of half-digested fish in her stomach. The chick is growing well: in a month and a half, while the father is traveling, he “recovers” by several kilograms.

Here, again, it's all about "milk": not only did the penguin feed the penguin with fish, but also with this very "bird's milk". nine0003

The penguin will return, having eaten in the sea on fish and squid, will again take the cub, and then the penguin will wander through the snow in search of prey.

Sitting for forty-fifty days either with dad or mom on the legs, the young penguin grows up. In the "pocket" he is now cramped. And then he goes to the "kindergarten": in some place, young penguins gather in a bunch. Hundreds of them stand in a dark crowd, clinging to each other, and brother warms brother.

"Kindergarten" run by old birds. When a blizzard spins snow whirlwinds, they surround the chicks from all sides, creating, as zoologists say, a protective rampart. nine0003

Parents take turns attending the “kindergarten”; the chicks scream, everyone asks for food, but the penguins in the cry and noise recognize the voices of their penguins and feed only them. Those are unusually gluttonous: they can eat six kilograms of fish at once.

Five-month-old penguins no longer need parents. Spring came, followed by summer, the ice floes melted, began to break off, and on them young graduates of "kindergartens" float to practice at sea. There they learn to dive and fish, and in the meantime they grow feathers. nine0003

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Crowded nursery on the ocean

Warming each other. While waiting for their parents to return, baby Adélie penguins snuggle up to keep warm.

Signal for dinner. After returning from a sea hunt, Adélie penguins call their chicks and feed them regurgitated fish.

In crowded subantarctic fur seal colonies, parental calls are a special form of protection. Returning to the shore after feeding at sea, the female faces a difficult task - to find her own among the many cubs. Slapping along the shore, she calls him with cries, listening to the familiar response. nine0003

The female recognizes the newborn cub by smell, and a little later distinguishes his voice from hundreds of others. Making her way along the shore, she unmistakably finds her own and, having quickly sniffed, begins to feed.

For the Adélie penguin, finding her baby in a crowd of almost identical penguins requires even more attention. After all, penguins are devoid of smell, and they have to rely almost only on hearing. Climbing out of the sea, the parents go to the place where they left their babies, constantly calling them to screams. Hearing the parental call, the penguin gets out of the heap in which he huddled with hundreds of other kids, fleeing the cold, and waddle to the nest for food. nine0003

Birds living in large colonies learn to recognize each other by their characteristic calls. Terns, for example, nest in large flocks on small sandy islands. Parents find their nest and masonry according to signs around. But this helps them only until the chicks hatch, which, having been born, immediately disperse around the island, hiding in crevices from predators and the elements.

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