King Penguins

Falkland Islands King Penguins Penguins

King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) (Kings) are the second largest penguin species in the world (Emperor penguins are the largest species of penguin).

Adult Kings stand tall with a slender build and are dignified in appearance. Kings waddle and swim very gracefully.  They have almost blackheads with orange/yellow spots on both sides of their heads and at the top of their chests. King chicks are brown and fluffy until they moult and grow their adult feathers. 

Kings live in the southern hemisphere, such as the sub-Antarctic Islands, South Georgia, Macquarie Islands, the Falkland Islands, Crozet Island, Prince Edward Island, Kerguelen Island and Heard Island.  

Volunteer Point in the Falkland Islands is home to the second-largest King penguin colony in the world, with over 1500 breeding pairs, and it is also the world’s most accessible colony.

Volunteer Point

Volunteer Point is private land and a highly protected conservation area, providing Kings with a safe and secure habitat. The local people at Volunteer Point protect their colony of Kings. Volunteer Point is accessible via road through private farmland, in a 4×4 vehicle, or by helicopter from Mt Pleasant Airport.  Besides a large colony of King penguins, there is a small colony of Gentoo penguins, Magellanic penguins, and various other sea birds.


Kings are well protected in harsh cold climates with four layers of feathers to protect them. The inner three layers consist of down feathers that form a thick insulation layer to keep them warm. The outermost layer of feathers provides an oily and waterproof coating. Interestingly, Kings have 70 feathers on every 6.45 cm2


Kings moult once a year, which lasts around a month. Kings have a very stressful time during moulting. During the moulting period, their feathers are not waterproof; they cannot swim or feed and undergo a fast. During their fast, they can lose up to half their body weight.  

Kings are sociable and live in large colonies of up to 100,000 breeding pairs. A group of Kings are called a rookery, colony, huddle, convent, raft, or waddle. 

Kings are adept swimmers and spend long periods of their lives at sea. Their long, thin bodies help them move fast in the water, coupled with their stiff, flat flippers and webbed feet helping to propel them swiftly through the water as they hunt for food. Kings have been known to dive up to 300 metres and stay submerged for 5 minutes; this is longer and deeper than any other penguin.


Height: 60 – 90 cm

Weight: 11 – 16 kg

Lifespan: 15 – 20 years


Kings prefer flat beach habitats with gentle slopes close to the sea, furthermore they prefer areas without snow and ice. 


Shrimp, krill, crustaceans and fish. Lantern fish is their favourite meal.


Male and female king penguins will display certain distinctive types of behaviour at the beginning of the mating season, such as male Kings standing tall, raising their bills in the air, and emitting trumpet-like calls, signalling the male’s availability for the female. When a male and female king penguin meet to form a couple, they bow, strut and shake their heads. They will then stand facing each other, rise to their full height and then relax their bodies.


Kings differ from most other penguins because they do not build any nest. Instead, a king penguin will carry its egg on its feet. Eggs are covered by a protective flap of abdominal skin known as a ‘brood patch’; this ensures the egg is constantly incubated. 

Breeding cycle

Kings have a much longer breeding cycle than any other penguin. The breeding cycle is long and lasts between 13 – 16 months. This means they can only raise two chicks in three years. Eggs are laid between November and December, and it takes 55 days to incubate them. Both parents will share the incubation and caring for their chick. They swap the egg over to the feet of their mate every six to eighteen days. Once born, king penguin chicks continue to be protected in this way for another 30 to 40 days until they can regulate their body temperature. 


The chicks remain in creches throughout their first year of life. During this time, breeding adults return to feed chicks irregularly throughout the winter. The chicks fast for extended periods (sometimes several months between meals) while the adults are away at sea and bring back food for their chicks. As a result, some chicks will lose up to 50% of their body weight or may starve if their parents are away too long.

Interestingly, when adult Kings return to their colonies, they can recognise and reunite with their chicks in a creche of up to 50,000 chicks. They may take several hours looking, but eventually, a chick will hear its parents call and respond to them. 

Chicks appear larger than adult birds and are often called woolly penguins due to their fluffy brown feathers. 

Kings leave their colony once they have lost their fluffy brown juvenile feathers by one year old. They will head out to sea and then return to where they were born after three years to breed. 

Unlike other penguin species, the adults return to the breeding colony at different times. Finding the same mate again is much less likely, so kings frequently change partners for each breeding cycle rather than pairing up with the same partner.


Humans, sea lions, sharks, leopard seals and killer whales are their main predators. Predatory birds such as skuas, sheathbills, giant petrels and caracaras often take eggs and tiny chicks.

Conservation Status

Least Concern. There are around 2.23 million breeding pairs of King Penguins worldwide, with numbers increasing (IUCN).

Kings currently face no conservation threats. As a result, they are thriving in their natural environments, and their population is increasing. 

King penguins were harvested for fat, oil, eggs, and feathers during the 18th and 19th centuries. With no trees in the Falklands and South Georgia and whalers needing fuel, they used the penguin’s fat to boil the whale blubber and extract the whale oil. They also used penguin oil for lamps, heating, and cooking; they ate the Kings and their eggs. A commercial hunting ban was implemented in 1969. Although poaching has continued, it has been insignificant and has not affected their population.

The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 states that harming or interfering with any penguin or its eggs is illegal. Researchers must acquire a permit approved by and report to the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR).


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(c) Margaret Weiss 2020