Macaroni penguin

Profile

The macaroni penguin is a pretty easily recognizable penguin living in many places in the southern hemisphere. What makes it so easily recognizable is the yellow feathers on each side of its head. They have reddish-orange bills with a black head, back, tail, top of the wings, and top half of the neck. The lower half of the neck and the rest of the body is white with occasional black markings.

These birds get their name from the yellow feathers on their heads, but not because it reminds people of the pasta macaroni. Instead, they reminded explorers of hats men used to wear in the 1700s, called macaroni hats. These were hats with a yellow feather in them, and they are mentioned in the song “Yankee Doodle.”

Surprisingly, not a lot is known about these creatures outside of their breeding season. While most animals are harder to learn about during the breeding season, macaroni penguins are easier to learn about then. This is because they primarily spend the rest of the year in the open ocean.

The males and females in this species look alike, but there are several differences between the full-grown juvenile penguins and the adult penguins. First of all, the juveniles don’t have the yellow feathers, or at least not as many of them, on their head. They also have smaller beaks and are more brown or gray in color.

Size

While they aren’t large by penguin standards, these birds are much larger than most birds here in North America. Males and females are roughly the same size, with the females possibly being a little larger. They stand between 24 and 28 inches (60-70 cm) tall, about the length of a 6-month-old baby. They also have a wingspan of 31-39 inches (80-100 cm), which is larger than a chicken’s wingspan!

When it comes to weight, macaroni penguins have a large range. They can be anywhere from 7 to 14 pounds (3.2-6.2 kg), which is even heavier than the average house cat!

Diet and hunting

The two favorite foods of macaroni penguins are fish and krill. Penguins in some areas eat fish more, others eat krill more. Scientists estimate that every year this penguin species alone consumes 4.4 million tons (4 million tonnes) of krill! This is 19 times the weight of the world’s largest cruise ship!

These penguins have been known to migrate as far north as the Indian ocean in order to feed on the large amounts of krill there. During the breeding season, the adults fast for up to 40 days while they care for their young. In addition to krill and fish, these penguins occasionally eat squid and crustaceans.

Habitat and range

The map below shows the macaroni penguin’s range, with Antarctica at the center of the map. Typically they breed in more northern places than the spend the rest of the year. The most populous area for these penguins is South Georgia island, a small island towards the northern part of their range about one-third of the way between South America and Africa.

During the breeding season, these penguins will live on the rocky or grassy areas near the coast. During the rest of the year, they are thought to live in the open ocean, but no one knows for sure.

Status and threats

Macaroni penguins are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Despite this ranking, they have around 18 million individuals alive in the wild, making them the most populous penguin species in the world!

In the ocean, killer whales and leopard seals have macaroni penguins on their menus. While they are on land, these predators can’t harm them, but the young and weak penguins can be preyed on by skuas and other large birds of prey.

Reproduction and young

The most common macaroni penguin breeding area is on the South Georgia island where more than 3 million breeding pairs can make their nests and raise their young! The breeding season for this bird occurs in October and November. Males arrive at the breeding grounds before the females so they can claim their territory.

Unlike many birds, macaroni penguins will form long-lasting breeding pairs that re-unite every year to breed. They recognize each other by their calls. The pair will build a simple nest in an indention in the ground lined with grass and rocks. The female will lay one or two eggs. If two eggs are laid, the second one will be smaller.

The eggs are incubated for up to 37 days with the incubation being split into 3 shifts. The male and female share the first shift of 8-12 days, the females takes care of the eggs for the next 12-14 days, and the male watches the nest the final 9-11 days. The parent that isn’t incubating the eggs goes to the sea to hunt for food.

Usually, only the first chick to be born survives, but if that one is unable to survive, the second egg is used as a sort of backup. About 60-70 days after they hatch, the young have developed their watertight feathers and they then leave the breeding site. The adults stay for another three weeks and feed there, because at that time they undergo their annual molt, where their plumage is not watertight and they cannot hunt. After the 25 day molt, the adults leave the colony.

The young penguins do not breed until they are five or six years old. In the wild they can live up to 12 years.

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Sources:

Photo credits:

  • Macaroni penguin – Wikipedia user: Godot13
  • Macaroni penguin range – Wikipedia user: The Emirr
  • Mystery animal –  Brian Gratwicke

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