Description & Characteristics:
Royal penguins breed only on Macquarie Island, in large, dense colonies on tussock-covered slopes of scree and beach. They are members of the crested penguin group (genus Eudyptes), so named for the crestlike yellow feathers on their heads. lt was once thought by taxonomists that Royal penguins were a subspecies of Macaroni penguins, whose breeding grounds are often found overlapping both temporally and spatially. However, Royals are now recognized by most scientists as a separate species. At the present time, their conservation status appears stable, although for many years, these penguins were killed and boiled down for oil by early explorers, sealers, and whalers.
Though slightly smaller, Royal penguins are very similar in appearance to Macaroni penguins. The main distinguishing feature is the color of the chin and face. Royals have predominately white chins and faces while those ofMacaronis are mostly black.
Royal penguins eat crustaceans (mostly krill), fish and squid caught by pursuit-diving normally at depths of 50 to 150 feet. Dives rarely exceed two minutes in duration. Like all penguins, they are excellent swimmers, using their webbed feet, powerful flippers, and streamlined bodies to ‘fly’ through the water at speeds approaching 20 miles per hour.
Arriving at the huge breeding colonies in October, female Royals lay two eggs in holes scraped in the sandy gravel near shore. So densely packed are the colonies that vegetation disappears and the birds incubate and rear their chicks in mud. As is typical among Eudyptes penguins, the smaller, first-laid egg is kicked from the nest and usually does not hatch. The remaining egg hatches in about 30 days. Males then guard the chicks for three to four weeks, until the chicks are large enough to join ‘creches’ (nursery groups) where they huddle together for warmth and protection. From mid-January onward both parents are free to feed the chick with each adult taking a foraging ‘shift’ which lasts about two days. Royal chicks fledge in late February and head out to sea on their own. Colonies are deserted by May, after adults complete their molt ashore. They will remain at sea all winter, leaving Macquarie Island to roam the southern waters from Antarctica to Tasmania, until the next breeding season.