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Penguin Parents

This article first appeared in the 6/19/20 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

Penguin Parents

Emperor penguins, Ross Sea, Antarctica. Photo by Michael Van Woert, 1999, NOAA Photo Library.

Penguin Parents


By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise


Many penguin species have both male and female partners care for the egg and hatchling.  Emperor penguin males take it a step further and are considered one of the most dedicated fathers in the animal kingdom.


The parenting journey for emperor penguins begin in March and April, at the beginning of winter in the southern pole, with penguins heading towards their nesting grounds.  Like fish and turtles, penguins head towards the nesting site they were born in to produce their own young.  This migration can range from 30-75 miles and take up to a week to walk. Once at the nesting site, the penguins do courtship displays to attract a mate.  Penguins stay faithful to each other for the duration of the nesting season but will likely choose a different mate the following year.


The female penguin lays a single egg each year, usually in May or June.  The eggs are pear shaped and weigh about one pound.  The shell is thick to help prevent breakage, but can only survive the cold for a minute or two, so constant protection is a must.  After laying the egg, the female carefully transfers it to the feet of the male and is covered by a special fold of skin called the brood pouch.  After transferring the egg to the male, the female heads to the coast to fish and eat as her food stores were exhausted in production of the egg.


While the female is away fishing, the male balances the egg on his feet and incubates the egg in the brood pouch.  Males at the nesting site will huddle together to keep warm, rotating from outer edge to interior so ensure everyone keeps warm. The father at this point has not eaten since before the breeding season and will continue to fast until the female returns.  Eggs usually begin to hatch before the females return and the male produces a curd-like substance called “crop-milk” for the chick to eat.  He only has enough to feed the chick for about a week or so.  Female emperor penguins hunt and feed for about 2 months before returning to the male and likely newly hatched chick.  Once the female returns, it is the male’s turn to head to fishing grounds and feast himself.  During the remainder of the winter, the penguin parents take turns feeding and watching over the chick, until the chick is old enough to walk and fish for themselves usually in December and January.


Even though several penguin species co-parent their young, emperor penguins are the only ones where the males will fast and exclusively incubate during the harsh Antarctic winter.



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