South America Update – Jan 2018

Dear PenguinPromises


The chicks are well and have grown a lot since I wrote last. When the chicks were little Promises had to do everything for them. They couldn’t walk, and Promises had to keep them tucked underneath the feathers to keep them warm and safe.


Now the chicks are much bigger and have been leaving the nest on their own to explore their surroundings and to meet other chicks from other nests. We have now been able to get a photo of the chicks for you and I hope you like the photo.


When the chicks were newly-hatched they didn’t eat very much, but now that they are getting bigger they are demanding more and more food each day. The parents used to take it in turns to go to sea to catch food for the chicks. One would stay at home with the chicks in the nest whilst the other went to sea to catch fish. Then the following day they would swap over. That way the chicks got enough to eat and both parents had time out at sea to feed themselves too.


Now the chicks are demanding more food than one of the parents can catch on its own, so now both parents have to go to sea each day to catch fish for the chicks.

That means that the chicks are left alone in the nest during the day, which is not ideal.


It can de dangerous for the chicks being on their own. They are curious and like to explore, and obviously they can get themselves into trouble without Promises around to watch over them during the day. The natural world is not like human society. Animals have to make difficult decisions to survive. Leaving the chicks alone each day is risky, but the chicks have to be fed, so the parents have no choice.


At the moment the chicks have fluffy feathers which are great when the chicks are small and staying at home in the nest, but those feathers are not suitable for swimming. Just like human babies, baby penguins need warm clothing to keep them warm, and the fluffy chick feathers do keep the chicks lovely and warm.

However just like baby clothes they are not designed for swimming, or even heavy rain.


The sleek water-proof feathers of the adults are not as warm, but they do have the advantage that they work the same even when they are wet. The adult penguins compensate for this difference in feathers by having layers of fat below the skin which insulate the penguins against the cold, but that is something that the chicks don’t have yet.


If the fluffy chick feathers get wet they soak up the water like a sponge and stick together, making swimming impossible. The fluffy feathers also loose their warmth if they get wet during a rain storm, and the chicks have to dry out their feathers after any rain to warm up again. Prolonged rain can be a real problem for chicks living in open nests without proper protection from bushes or a burrow.


The chicks are not yet ready to go swimming physically either. Even if they did have water-proof feathers and protective layers of fat under their skin, they do not yet have enough strength in their flippers to be able to swim. It will be about another month before the chicks are ready to enter the water to go swimming.

So for now the chicks are forced to stay at home when the adults go fishing.


The chicks are already beginning to change their fluffy feathers for waterproof feathers. The new feathers grow underneath pushing the old feathers out, and the old feathers are already falling out inside the nest. When the old fluffy feathers have fallen out completely the new feathers will replace them, and these new feathers then need to be preened to apply wax that gives the feathers their water-proof quality before they can be used for swimming.


The wax is secreted from a gland near the tail, and the penguins take this wax in their beak and rub it through their feathers, called preening. Adults spend much of their spare time preening to keep their feathers in good condition and to keep the feathers waxed. The chicks will soon begin doing the same, and then they will be able to go swimming too, but until then the chicks have to stay at home and wait for Promises to bring them food.


Both parents leave the nest early in the morning to go fishing. At the moment it gets light here at about 4am so they can get an early start. When the hungry chicks see Promises coming back to the nest in the afternoon they go crazy. They have been all day without food and are very hungry. They start squabbling and even climbing over each other to get fed first. The older chick always tries pushing to the front to get fed first, but it doesn’t matter because there is enough food for both. When the oldest chick has had enough food he sits down quietly and has a nap, and the younger chick then enjoys getting fed in peace.


The chicks were born four days apart, and most years the chicks grow so quickly that the difference in size disappears within a couple of weeks, but this year has been a difficult year for Promises. It has been much warmer than usual. Penguins do not really like hot weather, and neither do the fish. This year warm sea water currents have pushed the fish further away from the coast, so the parents have to travel further each day to catch fish for the chicks.


There has been strange weather in many places around the world during the last few months, and here it has meant warmer weather and more problems catching fish.

However despite the difficult conditions this year Promises and the chicks are all keeping well. With less food this year the chicks are growing a bit more slowly than they would normally, but they are fit and healthy, so that is the main thing. It just means they will be a few days later leaving the colony this year.


I will write to you again next month to let you know how they are all doing.



Best wishes,  Mike


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