Emperor Penguin

Among all the species of Penguins alive today, Emperor Penguins are the heaviest and the tallest. There isn’t much notable difference between the male and female penguins in terms of size or plumage color. It is common knowledge that Penguins are flightless. In charge of a streamlined figure, what should have been wings are two stiff and flat flippers ideal for marine life. When they are hunting for food, they are capable of staying underwater for over 20 minutes. Several instances of adaptation occurred before they could reach this stage. 

Penguins have always been a species humans have been fascinated with. The case is more so for Emperor Penguins as those are the ones we tend to see on television and in cartoons. Today, we’ll learn about: 

  • Emperor Penguin color patterns, songs, and size
  • Emperor Penguin behavior, habitat, and diet
  • Emperor Penguin life cycle, nesting, and migration range


Emperor Penguins Color Pattern

The head of an adult Emperor Penguin is completely black. The chin, throat, the back of their body, their arms, and their webbed feet are black in color too. The front of their body is mostly white with splashes of washed-out yellow. On the sides of their head and neck area, darker yellow patches are found. Their bill is black too though you see a bit of orange on the sides. 

The young Emperor Penguins lack the yellow patches their parents possess. They are also hard to distinguish from other sub-species of Penguins. However, when it comes to being adorable, the children definitely always win the vote. Instead of having black or white all over their body, young penguins are grey in color. That is, it is as if someone has painted gray over what would otherwise be a white body. Their feet and the top of their head are black, so is their bill and the splash of orange isn’t present. The cheeks are white in color though. You can’t help thinking adorable every time you see a young Emperor Penguin. 

Description And Identification

Identifying Emperor Penguins is one of the easiest things you would do as a birdwatcher. After all, penguins are easy to identify in general and Emperor Penguins are even more so. Other than the usual black feathers on the back, black feet, black flippers, and a white front, this species has a patch of yellow running down the sides of their neck. Then, the face happens to be a completely black mask with a black bill that has orange shades on the sides. 

You can’t identify Emperor Penguins by their calls at all. The calls are highly individualized and are modified by the parents and chicks to identify each other. It is impossible for a human to take notes and identify them. They are like humans in that they have different voices that help us recognize each other. The moderate their calls because they don’t have a nest they can go back to. 

Emperor Penguin Song 

Emperor Penguins don’t nest and have no nest site. They can’t come back to their partners or chicks to a designated nest site. Instead, the only way they can find each other is by identifying each other’s calls. They have sets of calls that are complex and have patterns that allow mates and offspring to individually recognize each other. Even among all penguin species, Emperor Penguins have the highest variety of individual calls. Two bands of frequency are simultaneously used by Emperor Penguins for vocalizing. As for the chicks, what they have is a whistle of sorts when they are asking for food from their parents or trying to contact them. 

Emperor Penguin Size

Among the living Penguins, Emperor Penguins are undoubtedly the largest. They are also the tallest of their lot. You can’t find any difference in size if you inspect the male and female Emperor Penguins for the most part. Any difference in size would be more due to not eating enough food than due to natural differences in structure. In length, they are about 100 cm. Their weight ranges from 22 kg to 45 kg. 

Emperor Penguin Behavior

When foraging, Emperor Penguins form a good relationship with other penguins. In the sea, the group of penguins is referred to as rafts. On the icy lands, they are called colonies. 

The colonies have thousands and thousands of penguins. The lowest might be about 5000 while the highest number is 10,000. When the Antarctic winds blow strongly, Emperor Penguins huddle together. The chicks are kept in the middle while the adults surround them. The members go in and out of the group, taking turns in braving the cold winds at the outer layer of the formation. So, not only are they sociable creatures, they have a fair mindset towards their own. 

What Emperor Penguins Eat

The diet of Emperor Penguins is centered around fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans. For them, fish is usually the primary source of food, with Antarctic silverfish being consumed in huge amounts. Glacial and hooked squid have also made their way into the diet of Emperor Penguins. 

Where Emperor Penguins Live And Habitat

We all know the habitat of penguins and Emperor Penguins are no different. They are used to the ice and the sea. The icy lands are where they mostly live and the sea is where they forage for food. There isn’t much to it than this. 

Range and Migration

In the Antarctic, Emperor Penguins exclusively live between 66° to 77°. The breeding happens in a pack that stays between the icy coasts and offshore ranging to about 18 km. For breeding, the colonies choose areas where ice cliffs and icebergs can help block some of the strong cold wind. There are reports of three colonial lands. One was on the Antarctic Peninsula’s Dion Islands which don’t exist anymore. One is on Victoria Land’s Taylor Glacier, another one is on Amundsen Bay. 

On the northernmost range, most of the breeding population resides on Snow Island. Vagrants have been found in New Zealand, Head Island, and South Georgia. These vagrants happen to wander individually rather than in colonies. They aren’t migratory birds as that would basically mean walking miles and miles for penguins. While they do march to their breeding ground, they don’t have to cross oceans. It only spans the Antarctic environment, somewhere between 30 to 90 miles. These are bird species that have settled into the land they live in and their body has adapted to it. 

Emperor Penguin Life Cycle

 Emperor Penguins breed at the time of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the only species of penguins to do so. At three years of age, they are considered mature. From January to March, they have what one would call feeding season. This period sees the adults eating a lot and storing the fat, preparing for the long stretch of time where they won’t have the chance to consume anything. Come April, they begin heading towards their breeding ground. In the antarctic environment, their travel ranges from 50 km to 150 km. 

Then, in May, mating season begins in earnest. Male  Emperor Penguins arrive before the female ones. Their display of courtship begins and they sharpen their mating call. This mating call involves touching their bills to their chest, take a deep breath and then belts out a call that lasts all of two seconds. 

Once a pair has been formed, they stand in front of each other and raise their neck, gazing at each other for minutes. At the end of this little ritual, they are a couple, waddling around the colonies with each other. Serially monogamous, they stay with the mate they chose one season but switch to another next season. The one egg they produce is incubated by the fathers, who use their feet and breeding patch to keep it warm. The male Emperor Penguins can’t eat the entirety of the incubating process. For about 110 days, they maintain distance from food, starting from when they leave the breeding ground to the time it takes before an egg is hatched. 

As for the female penguins, laying the eggs takes out lots of their nutrition. So, they go to the sea to forage. For two months, they stay there, returning around the time their egg is hatched. Once the eggs are hatched, the chicks depend on their parents for warmth and food. If the female penguins haven’t returned yet, the male Emperor Penguin can cough up substances that store their esophagus to feed their young ones. 

Once the female penguin returns, the male penguin heads to the sea for food. They return in about a month, after which, the chicks become independent enough to walk around and huddle with other chicks. By November, they start growing feathers to keep them warm and don’t have to rely on their parents for food. Then, in December, they make their way towards the sea. 


The thing about Emperor Penguins is that they most certainly don’t nest. They are among the bird species that see no need for nesting and in fact, find the idea troublesome than worth. The icy winds constantly blowing in the homes of this species, that is, in the ice shelves of Antarctica aren’t exactly ideal for keeping eggs out in the open, on those very ice. For one, not much nesting material is available in the first place. If it was accessible, it would be of no good since the eggs would just freeze over being exposed to the cold. 

As a result, Emperor Penguins don’t bother with a nest. They lay one egg on the ice and then without wasting a second, they roll it towards the male Penguin’s feet. The egg is then stored in the abdominal pocket of the father all of winter. This pocket has a reservoir of thick fat which protects the child from the cold. If they didn’t have this method down pat, it would be impossible for Penguins to keep on breeding.  

Anatomy of an Emperor Penguin

The anatomy of most Penguin types is more or less the same. They have a head that is quite large compared to their body, a neck that begins and ends quickly, and a long body. The tail is a short one with minimum flexibility and shaped like a wedge. The legs are short and the feet are webbed. It is also a little behind of their body, helping them have an upright posture. They have long arms that end in a triangular-shaped palm. All in all, their body is made so they can swim comfortably and walk on land. 

Final Thoughts

Emperor Penguins are among the species that were and are devastatingly affected by climate change. 2012 saw the conservation status of this species change from one of least concern to nearly threatened status according to IUCN. The species is also being considered to be included under the Endangered Species Act. 

The risk to their lives is due to a mix of various factors. From climate change to industrial fisheries and the growing lack of food, destruction of habitat, disease, and having their breeding colonies disturbed by humans. You might be curious about Penguins but it is for the best we leave them alone these days. It is best to watch them from afar and admire them rather than go on a cruise tour to Antarctica. If you want to see them desperately, perhaps a trip to a nearby aquarium or zoo where Emperor Penguins are kept can satisfy your desire. 

A study from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution conducted in 2009 January actually concluded that global climate change can ensure Emperor Penguins are extinct by 2100. Another study from the same institute in June 2014 deduced global warming poses genuine threats to them. So, if we want to do anything about the Emperor Penguins that have been such an integral part of our lives and have been one of those rare bird species everyone can recognize at a glance, we need to start caring for the planet. 


Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes

At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.

Bird Watching Binoculars for Identifying Emperor Penguins  

The most common types of bird-watching binoculars for viewing Emperor Penguins are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Emperor Penguin Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Emperor Penguin. Here is the sticker pack we sell with an Emperor Penguin sticker.

Bird Feeders For Emperor Penguin

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Best Bird Houses For Emperor Penguin

There are many types of birdhouses. Building a birdhouse is always fun but can be frustrating. These 4 birdhouses have become our favorites. Getting a birdhouse for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. We spent a little extra money on these birdhouses but they have been worth the higher price and look great.

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