ICE ICE BABY OUR ADOPTED PENGUIN - THE SAGA CONTINUES
It has been a difficult season here on Magdalena Island in Chile. The earthquake and after-shocks that recently struck Chile, occurred more than 2000 kilometres to the north of where we are based, so nobody here was directly affected. Nevertheless, the areas affected included the two principal cities in Chile (Santiago and Concepcion) and most people in Chile have family and friends in the affected areas, so the whole of Chile has been hit by the tragedy.
The penguins were not affected by the earthquake, and Ice Ice Baby's chicks have both left the colony to begin life on their own. But this year has been a mixed year for the penguins on Magdalena Island for other reasons. Food has been abundant, as usual thanks to the ban on commercial fishing, but lack of rain has caused the grass to die off across the island, causing the strong winds of the region to whip up the dry soil into dust storms. These dust storms completely buried some of the penguin burrows, and we were kept busy digging out chicks trapped inside their burrows.
The youngsters now face new challenges, as they begin life on their own. Throughout their young lives the chicks have had food brought to them by Ice Ice Baby, but now they are completely on their own, and must learn to do everything for themselves.
Having never even been to sea before, they must now learn where to find fish, and how to catch them.
Ice Ice Baby cannot go along to help, because the adults must now attend to their own needs. In about 4 weeks time the adults' feathers will fall out. This is perfectly normal. The old feathers fall out, and new ones grow back each year.
The process is called moulting , or molting, depending in what country you live in.
During the moult (molt) the penguins must remain on land, and since all their food is at sea, that means they are unable to eat during the 3 or 4 weeks of the annual moult. So the adults must now catch as much food as they can for themselves to build up the weight that they have lost during chick-rearing, so that they are well fed and in good condition to take on 3 or 4 weeks without food during the moult. That is why Ice Ice Baby cannot go with the chicks.
However the youngsters have received the best possible help that Ice Ice Baby could have given them. Firstly, just like a cat will chase anything small that moves in front of it, even a piece of string, the chicks automatic know to chase and catch anything small that they see moving in the water. This is called instinct.
It is like knowledge that is stored in the brain from the time of birth; knowledge that is there without having to be learnt, just waiting for the moment when it is needed.
Secondly, the layers of fat that the youngsters built up as chicks, thanks to all the fish that Ice Ice Baby fed them, now act as their food reserves, keeping the youngsters strong and healthy, as they master the art of catching fish for themselves.
The fatter the chick is when it leaves the nest, the longer it can go without food, as it learns to catch its own food. That is why a plentiful food supply during chick-rearing is so important to the penguins' survival, and why uncontrolled commercial fishing, like that which occurs around the Falklands, is so damaging.
Fortunately these chicks were raised in an area where the penguins are cared for, and so the chicks are fat and healthy, and have the best possible chance of making it on their own.
The adults feed on small fish, mostly a species called 'Sprattus fuegensis', but the chicks will eat whatever they can find to begin with, including squid, shrimps and other crustaceans. It will take many weeks for the young juveniles to build up the strength in their flipper muscles that the adults have, which will eventually give them the speed and stamina necessary to catch the fastest fish. Becoming a master fish catcher takes a long time.
Back in the colony, things are very quiet for the time being. The chicks have all left, and most of the adults are spending most of their time out at sea, feeding and building up their fat deposits ready for the annual moult. Once the adults finish their annual moult, they will follow the chicks northwards towards Brazil, on their winter migration. I will write to you again when Ice Ice Baby and our other penguins are getting ready to leave.