Nov 14, Adelies Aren't the Only Ones

In other places of the world many species of birds would co-exist in a small area. Near my home in California, over a hundred species can be found within a 50 mile radius. Here at Cape Royds, Ross Island, Antarctica the conditions are so harsh only four species are commonly seen. When these sturdy birds adapted to live here they got this place to themselves.

Emperor penguins are the other true Antarctic penguin species. These gracious birds and the Adelies never leave the Antarctic and are considered ice obligates meaning they need ice to live on. At this time they are not considered an endangered species, but their numbers are declining in some colonies around the continent as the sea ice conditions change. Adult Emperors grow to 4 ft and can weigh 50 -100 lbs. To survive the sustained cold of the Antarctic winters they have a fat layer over an inch thick and 100 feathers per sq inch.

These birds are actively at sea during the months of January to March eating krill, small fish and squid as they increase their body stores in preparation for the breeding season. In late March both male and females will walk the 30-85 miles to their breeding site where the female will lay a single 1 lb egg, transfer it to the male for incubation and walk back to the open ocean to feed and replenish her body weight. For the next 65 days the male will keep the egg warm by holding it on his feet under a large flap of skin and huddle with the other penguins to ward off the harsh winds and cold of the Antarctic winter. When the chick hatches in July the female will be on her way back with food and it will be the males turn to leave. For the next few months the adults take turns feeding and guarding the chicks and by December (Antarctic summer) the chicks will have molted into adult plumage and be ready to feed themselves. By this time the sea ice will have retreated close to the colony so the chicks do not have to walk far.

The Emperors that came to visit Cape Royds this day were non-breeders. These may be juveniles under the age of 3 who are not ready to breed or other adults who for some reason did not raise a chick. Open ocean is close to Cape Royds this year so these large birds feed along the ice edge and come out onto the ice to rest. They are so much larger than the Adelies it is easy for us to tell them apart. Slow moving, deliberate and quiet, these birds walk with purpose and dignity. Although their feet are large and strong they are not as agile as the Adelie so climbing over ice and rock is not easy. Today they came onto the land a short way, but quickly turned around and went back to their home, the ice.



When we see these extraordinary creatures there is no need to approach them, sit down on the ice and their natural curiosity will turn the tables. We become the object of interest to them and in a few minutes they will walk over trying to figure out what kind of creatures we are. At first they are quiet, but then they will start to talk as if they expect me to respond. I wonder what secrets of the Earth they could tell me if only I could speak penguin. Similar to my experiences in foreign countries they will try to speak to me a few times, but finally in disgust at my lack of response turn their backs and move on. Compared to the Adelies I have never seen these birds run. A quiet and simple dignity of position and majesty surrounds their every movement. They are aptly named the Emperor Penguin.



Did You Know that Emperor Penguins have large strong feet adapted to walking on ice and holding a single egg for the entire incubation period. Adelie Penguin feet are also adapted to walking on ice and climbing rocks. See how these Antarctic birds have adapted to this envrionment here.

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