More News from South America

Dear Penguin Promises

The chicks have been growing quickly and they are now almost as big as Promises.
They now leave the nest each day to explore the area around the nest in preparation for leaving the colony. I attach a photo of the chicks so that you can see just how big they have grown in such a short time..

Childhood is very short for a penguin. The chicks leave the nest to begin life on their own after just two months from hatching. During those two short months they increase their weight 30 times, from about 100 grams at birth to about 3000 grams when they leave. They change from tiny balls of fluff into full-sized penguins in just 8 weeks, when food is in good supply, which it is here.

At the moment whenever the weather is nice, the chicks leave the nest to do their flipper exercises. They flap their flippers up and down as fast as they can as though they expect to fly, but these exercises play a very important role in building good strong flipper muscles which the chicks will need when they leave the colony to begin life as a juvenile. Once out at sea they will have to swim long distances and need to be ready for the journey.

The chicks have fluffy chick feathers when they are small. These fluffy feathers are wonderful for keeping the chicks nice and warm when the feathers are dry, but the fluffy feathers are no use at all when they get wet. They soak up water like a sponge and make swimming impossible. So the chicks are now shedding their fluffy chick feathers and replacing them with sleek, shiny feathers that are waterproof.

The new juvenile feathers do not soak up the water. They are coated with wax which the penguins produce in a gland near to the tail. They spread this wax over the feathers during grooming. Penguins spend a lot of time grooming themselves and each other. Keeping the feathers waxed is one of the reasons for grooming, and the other reason is to remove ticks and fleas.

The new feathers will keep the chicks warm and dry even when swimming. The waxy feathers interlock together using microscopic hooks, providing a waterproof barrier that works in a similar way to the black wet-suits which people use for diving and surfing. The new feathers are like the feathers of Promises, but without the black lines of the adults which only appear when the penguins reach 5 years of age..

Once these new feathers have finished growing the chicks will be ready to leave the colony and go out to sea on their own. Penguins are born to swim and are always happiest out in the open ocean. The excitement when the chicks first enter the water is a joy to see. They splash around, leap in and out of the water, and float around on their backs splashing water over themselves to bathe.

At the moment it is a difficult job for Promises to catch enough food to feed the ever hungry chicks. Their rapid growth means that the chicks can eat more than Promises can catch. The adults both set off as soon as the sun rises at about 5 o’clock in the morning, and spend all day out at sea catching fish for the chicks. The chicks cannot go into the water yet, until the new feathers are ready, so they must stay at home and wait for supper.
The chicks don’t get breakfast or lunch, just supper.

The adults don’t get home until late afternoon or early evening, and even after supper the chicks still complain that they are hungry. The chicks in our colony are well fed and food supply is not a problem here, which is why the chicks here grow so quickly. In colonies where food is in short supply, such as in the Falkland Islands, chick growth can take as long as 16 weeks, twice what it is here.

The chicks here eat a quarter of their own body weight every single day. The adults work 12 to 15 hours a day catching enough food for the chicks. They get no weekends and no days off to relax. Before they started rearing the chicks the adults weighed about 6 kg and now they weigh less than 5 kg. They have lost more almost 20% of their body weight because of working so hard to feed the chicks.
It is just as well that they only have to do it for two months, otherwise poor Promises would disappear altogether.

Despite their frenetic flipper exercises, the chicks lack the strength and stamina to be fast enough to catch large fish when they leave, so during the first few months at sea they fish amongst the kelp beds feeding on small fish, shrimps and other crustaceans.

Gradually as they spend more time at sea, and build up the flipper muscles, they will become faster and will be able to leave the kelp beds and catch slightly larger fish, but it takes four years for the youngsters to fully develop the strength and stamina that they need to begin raising families of their own. Experienced adults loose 20% of their body weight rearing the chicks, which is why younger juveniles would not have the strength and endurance to raise chicks successfully.

Many people ask if they can adopt the chicks, but unfortunately we are unable to offer the chicks for adoption. I wish we could. The problem is that when the chicks leave the colony, most will not return to the colony until they are 5 years old and ready to raise chicks of their own. That means that people adopting chicks would not get any news or photos of their penguin for 5 years.

Once the chicks have left, Promises will take a long rest out at sea just catching fish and relaxing, so that they can recover the weight that they have lost over the last few weeks. This feeding and recovery is very important because about a month after the chicks have left the adults must return to the colony in order to change all their feathers, which means a period of about three weeks stranded ashore with no food. It is important for Promises and the adults to recover their lost weight before beginning a long period without food.

I will write to you again when the chicks have left the colony and the adults are returning fat and healthy to begin their annual moult (molt)..

Best wishes, Mike

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