Royal penguins are the largest of the crested penguins, and are endemic to Macquarie Island, an Australian-administered subantarctic island south-west of New Zealand. They are easily recognised by their white faces, massive orange bills, and scruffy orange-yellow crests that meet on the forehead. Royal penguins are rare vagrants to New Zealand, but have occurred as far north as Napier.
Royal penguins are large crested penguins, approaching the size of yellow-eyed or gentoo penguins. They differ from all other crested penguins in that most birds have white faces (sometimes pale grey or dark gray). They are closely related to the (dark-faced) macaroni penguin, and share their enormous orange bill, prominent pink skin at the bill base, and scruffy orange-yellow crests that meet on the forehead. This last character is contra all other crested penguins, which have two separate crests that do not meet on the forehead. The remaining upperparts are blue-black, and the underparts silky white. Immature birds have a less robust, darker bill and reduced crest, but always have some chrome yellow feathers on the forehead.
Voice: like other crested penguins, very noisy at colonies. The main call is a deep, throbbing bray or trumpeting. The contact call is a short bark.
Similar species: macaroni penguin is almost identical apart from its dark face, though bill measurements average smaller than royal penguin. Chinstrap penguin is the only other white-faced penguin, but has no crest.
Distribution and habitat
Like most penguins, royal penguins only come to land when required to breed or moult. They breed at Macquarie Island only, and are rarely recorded on land away from there. Colonies on Macquarie Island are situated on the coast and on slopes up to 200 m
The total population of royal penguins is estimated at around 1,600,000 birds, with the 57 colonies ranging in size from 60 to more than 160,000 pairs. Vagrant birds are occasionally recorded on New Zealand subantarctic islands, the New Zealand mainland (mainly Otago), Tasmania, South Australia, the Ross Sea sector of Antarctica, and South Georgia.
New Zealand records
Four North Island records: Napier (1880-81), Lyall Bay, Wellington (June 1926), Cape Palliser (February 2007) and Tora, Wairarapa (February 2013). South Island records include Brighton, Dunedin (March 1877), Waikouaiti (March 1877), Taiaroa Head (before 1927), Otago Peninsula (1938), Dunedin (March 1976), Moeraki (March 1986), Colac Bay, Souhland (February 1997), north of Kaikoura (March 1997), Nugget Point (February 2004), Hampden Beach (February 2006). There are three records from Chatham Islands (February 2005, March 2006, March 2009), three from Snares Islands (February 1986, March 1994, March 2015), one from Antipodes Island (March 2009), and at least 4 records from Campbell Island, including 4 birds in January 1968.
Threats and conservation
Being confined to a single breeding site, royal penguins are vulnerable to single-site catastrophes such as oil-spills. The population is considered stable at about 850,000 pairs in 57 colonies.
Royal penguins breed only on Macquarie Island in large colonies. They arrive in September and lay in October-November. Like all crested penguins, they lay two eggs of markedly different size, with a second larger egg laid about 4 days after the first. As with the two other large crested penguins (macaroni and erect-crested penguins), the egg size dimorphism is extreme, and almost all the small first eggs are lost early in incubation. Only in about 1% of nests does the first egg produce a chick. The five smaller species of crested penguins have less difference in the size of the two eggs, and generally hatch both eggs, with the chick from the smaller egg usually dying of starvation within 10 days. Incubation by royal penguins is shared and takes about 35 days. Both adults feed the chick, with most chicks fledging in late January, when about 65 days old.
Behaviour and ecology
Like most penguins, royal penguins spend most of their lives at sea, coming ashore only to breed and moult. Both during breeding and feeding they are highly social. During the breeding season, foraging trips extend out to 415 km for females and 650 km for males, with durations varying from about 19 days during incubation, down to 5-6 days during chick-rearing. After chicks fledge, adults go to sea for about 36 days, after which they return to their breeding site to moult during February-March, which takes about 4 weeks. Once back at sea after the moult they travel vast distances, up to 10,000 km. The main predators of royal penguins are leopard seals, fur seals and sometimes orcas. Predation rates in the colonies are relatively low, with some unguarded chicks and eggs taken by subantarctic skuas (eggs and chicks), southern black backed gulls (eggs only) and giant petrels (chicks only).
Royal penguins feed predominantly on Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), which make up about 90% of the diet during the breeding season. At other times, fish can make up to 30% of the diet.
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Heather, B.D.; Robertson, H.A. 2005. Field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Penguin Group (NZ) Ltd.
Hull, C.L. 1999. Comparison of the diets of breeding royal (Eudyptes schlegeli) and rockhopper (Eudyptes chrysocome) penguins on Macquarie island over three years. Journal of Zoology 247: 507-529.
Hull, C.L. 1999. The foraging zones of breeding royal (Eudyptes schlegeli ) and rockhopper (E. chrysocome) penguins: an assessment of techniques and species comparison. Wildlife Research 26: 789-803.
Hull, C.L.; Wilson, J.; leMar, K. 2001, Moult in adult royal penguins Eudyptes schlegeli. Emu 101: 173-176.
Miskelly, C.M.; Crossland, A.C.; Sagar, P.M.; Saville, I.; Tennyson, A.J.D.; Bell, E.A. 2017. Vagrant and extra-limital records accepted by the Birds New Zealand Records Appraisal Committee 2015-2016. Notornis 64: 57-67.
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StClair, C.C.; Waas, J.R.;, StClair, R.C.; Boag, P.T. 1995 Unfit mothers? Maternal infanticide in royal penguins. Animal Behavior 50: 1177-1185.
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Ellenbroek, B. 2013 [updated 2017]. Royal penguin. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
- Social structure
- Breeding season
- Nest type
- ground-level hollow
- Nest description
- Shallow depression among stones, sand or mud
- Nest height (mean)
- 0 m
- Nest height (min)
- 0 m
- Nest height (max)
- 0 m
- Maximum number of successful broods
- Clutch size (mean)
- Clutch size (min)
- Clutch size (max)
- Mean egg dimensions (length)
- 75.5 mm
- Mean egg dimensions (width)
- 55 mm
- Egg colour
- chalky white
- Egg laying dates
- Interval between eggs in a clutch
- 4-6 days days
- Incubation behaviour
- Incubation length (mean)
- 35 days
- Incubation length (min)
- 32 days
- Incubation length (max)
- 37 days
- Nestling type
- Nestling period (mean)
- 21 days
- Age at fledging (mean)
- 65 days
- Age at independence (mean)
- 65 days
- Age at first breeding (typical)
- 10 years
- Age at first breeding (min)
- 5 years
- Maximum longevity
- Maximum dispersal
- 10,000 km