Growing Up Penguin:
Begging for Food
Even Penguins Can’t Get the Kids to Leave the Nest
After penguin chicks fledge, which is the act of losing their downy feathers and growing in waterproof feathers, they are officially juveniles. As juveniles, they can swim in the open ocean and catch fish for themselves rather than relying on their parents for regurgitated fish. But not all penguin parents are off the hook after their chicks fledge. Gentoo and Galapagos penguin parents have been seen feeding their young post-fledging. A 2017 study shows five instances of adult Galapagos penguins feeding their young after they have fledged between 2006 and 2015 (a Washington University review of the study can be found here). These are the only two species with recorded instances of this behavior.
This behavior is rare and requires that the adult penguin be healthy and not about to go through a molt. Also, a food source must be close by. Lastly, the juvenile penguin and its parents must both return to the original nesting site before the colony has dispersed back to the sea. All of these circumstances must occur for a parent to even think about feeding their young post-fledging.
In the past, we have witnessed chicks raised by parents in our exhibit continue to beg their parents for food long after fledging. We solved this problem by instituting a period of separation of the chick from the parents so the chicks learn to eat on their own from us behind the scenes. The parents are sent back to the exhibit and the chicks stay behind the scenes for a few weeks to practice swimming and eating on their own. This allows the chicks to be fully independent once they are transitioned to our exhibit.
When adults do feed their young post-fledging, it is indicative of ample food sources. However, due to climate change and overfishing, times of plenty are becoming scarcer. Cold water currents where penguins find their food are being shifted as a result of climate change. Penguins have to travel further from their breeding islands to capture food. Overfishing is also taking fish out of the ocean and results in many marine animals—including penguins—losing out on their food sources.
You can help penguins and other marine species by eating fish that are caught sustainably, meaning that the wild population of the species is stable and only a limited amount is taken to prevent declines of the species. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website makes it easy to choose sustainable seafood.