The World of Baby Penguins: From Hatchling to Adult

The World of Baby Penguins: From Hatchling to Adult

Baby penguins are amongst the cutest chicks out of all bird species. They are fluffy and often full of personality. In this guide, we've put together the most common questions and answers, along with plenty of pictures. So, if you want to learn all things about baby penguins, you’ve come to the right place!

What is a baby penguin called?

Generally speaking, baby penguins are referred to as chicks. They can also be called nestlings as with any other bird species at this stage of their life. There isn’t a specific name for baby penguins.


Most baby penguins are born with either a covering of grey, brown or white down feathers. The color, as well as the size, varies on the species of penguin. Not all baby penguins are born with feathers, as both the king and emperor penguins are born almost naked. For most penguins, it takes one year to reach their full adult plumage.

Emperor Penguin Babies

The chicks of emperor penguins hatch almost naked and take a couple of weeks to develop their first down coat, which is grey. The head has a black helmet on top, which goes all the way down to the chin and side of the neck. Both the throat and face are white.

The second down is relatively similar but is slightly darker, thicker and longer overall. The abdomen and chest also have a brownish wash.

Juvenile emperor penguins have less black on the head, and they have a diffused grey color around the eye. They also lack the yellow tinge under the neck, and the throat is whitish-grey.

Emperor Penguin chicks

Emperor Penguin chicks

King Penguin Babies

King Penguin chicks hatch pretty much naked. Their first down coat of feathers is developed in a few weeks and is either a pale grey or brown. The second down is a dark brown.

Juvenile King Penguins have faint pink markings on the bottom half of their beaks, and crown feathers are tipped with a greyish color. The bright patch on the back of the head is a much lighter and pale yellow.

King Penguin chicks

King Penguin chicks

Gentoo Penguin Babies

Gentoo penguin chicks have a first down of either grey or greyish-brown above. The head is slightly darker, and the underparts are white. The second down is a dark greyish-brown above, and underparts remain whiteish.

Juvenile gentoo penguins have weaker and duller bills than adults. The eyering is often incomplete, and the throat is often grey.

Gentoo Penguin chick

Gentoo Penguin chick

Adelie Penguin Babies

Adelie penguin chicks have pale grey feathers that are generally much darker on the head. The second down is a sooty brown.

Juvenile Adelie Penguins have white throats and chins. Both the cheek and ear-covers are dark - the chin can also be dark too. The bill and orbital ring are both dark at first, too.

Adelie Penguin chick

Adelie Penguin chick

Macaroni Penguin Babies

Macaroni Penguin chicks are born with a down of grey that covers the upper parts, head, chin and throat. The rest of their plumage is white. The second down is similar to the first, although the dark areas become more of a greyish-brown.

Juvenile Macaroni Penguins either lack or have shorter crests, and the bill is shorter and duller than adults. The yellow appears only on the side of the crown and the streaks of the forecrown. The iris is dark brown, and the chin and throat appear dark grey (the chin usually appears darker).

Macaroni Penguin chick

Macaroni Penguin chick

Chinstrap Penguin Babies

The chicks of a chinstrap penguin have a first down that is pale grey all over, often with paler coloring on the head. The second feathers are brownish-grey on the upper parts, and the underparts are a dirty creamy white.

The juvenile plumage of a chinstrap penguin has tiny dark streaks on the fore face, which are more apparent around the eye. The iris is duller, and the bill is smaller than the adult.

Two Chinstrap Penguin chicks

Two Chinstrap Penguin chicks

African Penguin Babies

African Penguin chicks are mostly a dark brownish-grey color. generally, their throats and abdomens are much paler. They also have pale patches behind the eyes.

The second down is blueish-grey on the upper parts. Other parts turn brown and a pale short stripe can be found behind the eye.

Juvenile African Penguins have slate colored upperparts and the head is very similar but is paler on the sides. The underparts are mostly white with a few dark spots. Bill is a darkish-grey and the legs are either a pale pinkish-grey or dark, dusky grey.

African Penguin chicks

African Penguin chicks


The size of a baby penguin varies based on the species of penguin. The smallest penguins, the little penguin, chicks can be as small as 7cm (3 inches) in length. The largest species, such as emperor penguins, can be as small as 10cm (4 inches) when they first hatch.


The weight of baby penguins varies as there are species that are much larger than others. The smallest are little penguins, which can weigh just 35 grams when they are born. Larger penguins, such as the emperor penguin, can hatch at around 315 grams (11 ounces).


Most baby penguins eat a mixture of regurgitated fish, krill and squid. Certain species of penguins completely digest their food before feeding it to their chicks. There is a special process which takes a couple of days where oil is made from the nutrients of the food. This is given to the chicks as a fish ‘milk’.

For more information on the diet of penguins, check out this article.

Feeding Methods

Adult penguins swallow food and save it for later in a form that the chicks can consume. There are three different ways that this is done, the first is regurgitation, the second is to create a kind of ‘milk’ from the food, and the final is swallowing the food whole to almost refrigerate it.

All of these methods always remain the same, by firstly the parents catching fish, krill or squid. It is then held for a while until it is ready to feed the chick.

Once it’s ready, the adult's beak is opened wide and the chicks beak placed inside, and then the food is regurgitated to feed the baby. The beak is almost like a giant spoon used to place the food inside the mouth of their chicks.

Gentoo Penguin feeding chicks by regurgitating

Gentoo Penguin feeding chicks by regurgitating

How do penguins recognise their babies?

Penguins can recognise their chicks from the distinctive call of the chick.

Nest Location

Not all species of penguins build nests, and when they do, they are generally simple. Both the emperor and king penguins do not build nests; and instead, both emperor penguins and king penguins balance their eggs on the males' feet.

Other species of penguins, like the macaroni penguin and little penguin, nest in shallow depressions on the ground. Chinstrap penguins gather pebbles, stones and twigs to create stable surfaces so their eggs won’t roll away.

King Penguin nuzzling the egg with its beak

King Penguin nuzzling the egg with its beak

Egg Appearance

Most species of penguins have either white or grey eggs. However, certain species have tints of blue or green. Nest building species have rounded eggs, and penguins that balance their eggs on their feet have pear-shaped eggs - this is so the egg does not roll away if they fall off the parents' feet.

The eggs of an emperor penguin are on average 10 - 13cm (4-5 inches) long and can weigh between 315 and 415 grams (11 and 15 ounces).

Smaller species like the Adelie penguin have much smaller eggs at 5 and 8cm (2-3 inches) long and 56 and 140 grams (2-5 ounces) in weight.

Gentoo Penguin on nest with two eggs

Gentoo Penguin on nest with two eggs

How many eggs do penguins lay?

Most penguins lay clutches that contain two eggs; however, the king and emperor penguins both lay only one egg.

Hatching Time

The time taken for penguin eggs to hatch ranges anywhere from 30 to 66 days. The variability depends on the species of penguin, habitat and climate.

Emperor penguin eggs are incubated solely by the male for a period of 62 and 66 days. This entire incubation is done by the male standing upright and balancing the egg on top of his feet for the entire duration. They have a loose layer of featherless skin called a brood patch, which is used to keep the egg warm.

  • King penguins incubate their eggs for between 52 and 56 days. Both sexes share this duty and have stints of 12 to 21 days.
  • Both male and female macaroni penguins incubate their eggs for between 33 and 40 days, with stints of 7 to 12 days.
  • Adelie penguins will incubate their eggs for usually 30 and 43 days. Both sexes will help and have stints of 7 and 23 days.
  • Little penguins incubate their eggs for between 33 and 37 days. Both sexes will share this task.
  • Chinstrap penguins incubate their eggs for between 31 and 40 days. Both males and females will share this with stints of anywhere from 1 to 18 days.
  • Gentoo penguins spend from 31 to 39 days incubating their eggs, by both male and female. They take it in turns with stints of 1 to 7 days.
  • African penguin males and females incubate the eggs for an average of 38 days, with short stints of 1 and 2 days.
Emperor penguins with nestlings

Emperor penguins with nestlings

When do penguins lay eggs?

The majority of penguins lay their eggs between October and December. However, there are exceptions to this and species such as the emperor penguin lay their eggs between May and June. Little Penguins have been recorded laying their eggs all year round but generally peak between August and November.

King Penguins are only capable of 2 breeding cycles every 3 years. Their breeding cycle is 14 months, and is the longest by far in the family.

Time with Parents

On average, baby penguins stay with their parents for between 5 and 6 months. However, this varies across species. During this period, the chick (or nestling) gradually learn how to take care of themselves without the help of their parents.

Parents often leave their babies for up to 24 hours in their ‘creches’ (name for a group of penguin chicks), whilst they go off and hunt for food.

Gentoo Penguin with two chicks

Gentoo Penguin with two chicks

When can baby penguins swim?

On average, it takes around 4 months for baby penguins to be able to swim. Penguin chicks cannot swim whilst they have their fluffy down feather covering. This is because they are not yet waterproof, and it will only be when they reach their juvenile plumage that they are fully waterproof and ready to swim.


What is a group of baby penguins called?

The collective noun for a group of baby penguins, or penguin chicks, is a crèche. Crèche is a french word roughly translating as a crib.

The time is taken to form, and the size of the creche varies, depending on the type of penguin. Generally speaking, it’s usually anywhere between 16 to 45 days of age when chicks will gather in their creches.

  • On average, emperor penguins chicks gather in creches when they are around 45 days old.
  • King penguin chicks usually form their creches when they are 40 days old.
  • Little penguins form groups from around 30 days of age and usually contain between 3 and 6 birds.
  • Adelie penguins gather in creches from 16 to 19 days, which is considerably quicker than most species.
  • Gentoo penguins gather in their creches at 20 to 37 days of age.
  • African penguins form small creches with up to five other chicks.

Why do baby penguins form groups?

Penguin chicks gather in creches for multiple reasons. However, the main reason is to provide protection from predators and the harsh weather conditions that they can encounter.

Not all penguin chicks form creches; these include penguin species found in temperate and subtropical areas, such as the macaroni penguin and penguins that nest in burrows.

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