South America Update – Jan 2019

Dear PenguinPromises

This year there has been plenty of fish for Promises to catch, and the chicks have been growing incredibly fast. I attach a photo of the chicks, and as you can see from the photo they are well fed and growing very quickly.

The chicks are now about 6 weeks old and are leaving the nest on their own to explore their surroundings. They group together with chicks from nearby nests whilst the parents are away fishing.

When the chicks were little, they did not eat very much, so one of the parents stayed at home all day to take care of the chicks. Now that the chicks are bigger they need a lot more food, just like human babies do when they get bigger. A human baby only needs a small portion of baby food, but a growing teenager never stops eating.

However human teenagers cannot match penguin chicks when it comes to appetite.

Each of the chicks now eats more than its own body weight in fish every week.

That is like an average teenager eating about 50 kgs of food per week. Of course the difference is that humans take many years to reach full size, but penguin chicks can reach full size in less than two months if they eat enough. Only lack of food slows them down, and this year food has been plentiful.

The chicks are pear-shaped when they are born. That is because they are quite literally a stomach on legs. Their stomach is the largest and most developed part of their body from the moment of birth until they are about half way through their development. Only then do they begin to look more like Promises.

The chicks now eat so much food that one parent cannot catch enough. So now both parents have to go fishing each day to catch enough fish to keep the chicks fed.

That means that the chicks are left alone on their own during the day, and just like most youngsters, they like to explore and hang out with their friends.

There are other nests just a few feet away, so when the weather is nice the chicks go outside and meet up with chicks from neighbouring nests. Gathering in groups is called ‘creching’ and it is used by most penguins. The chicks find safety in numbers when the parents are away fishing.

Most species of penguin live in tight colonies with all the nests side by side.

The space between each nest is determined by how far each penguin can stretch its neck to bite its neighbour. In those colonies the chicks form into large creches, with virtually all the chicks in the colony huddled together whilst the parents are away.

Magellanic penguins do not nest out in the open. They prefer burrows or the protection of bushes, so they live in colonies with nests much further apart. For that reason the chicks form much smaller creches of no more than

10 chicks, all staying within easy reach of their nest.

By late afternoon the chicks all say goodbye to their friends, and return home to their own nest with empty tummies, where they wait impatiently for Promises to arrive home with their supper. A 3kg chick can eat half a kilogram of food at a single sitting – one sixth of its body weight in 10 minutes. That is quite an achievement.

When the chicks were little they were fed fish that was mashed up, like baby food for baby penguins. Now that the chicks are bigger they can eat larger pieces of fish. Penguins are birds, and birds do not have teeth, so penguins cannot chew their food. They swallow everything whole. That means that Promises can only catch fish that are small enough to be swallowed whole.

It will not be long until the chicks leave the nest to begin life on their own.

They are already spending time outside the nest, flapping their flippers up and down as fast as they can as if they expect to fly. This comical behaviour has an important role in preparing the chicks to leave the colony.

Strong flipper muscles will be vital for swimming and catching food out at sea.

The parents are working so hard keeping the chicks fed, that they are loosing weight themselves. However when the chicks leave the colony Promises will have plenty of time to rest and recover the lost weight. I will write to you again when the chicks have left the colony, and Promises will enter the next phase of the penguins’ yearly cycle.

Best wishes from Mike

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