Natural Behaviors of Penguins

Penguins are social birds that live, breed and nest in colonies.
Penguins are social birds that live, breed and nest in colonies. (Image: Jupiterimages/ Images)

Penguins are one of the most social species of birds, a trait that helps them survive. Socialization and communicative behavior help maintain order within the colony and protect the group against predatory threats. There are 17 different species, with most living in Antarctica. Penguins are flightless hunters that rely on their superior swimming skills to hunt and forage for food.

Social Behavior

Penguins prefer to live and nest in colonies that number in the thousands. Vocalization and physical displays are typically used to warn of predators and communicate mating and nesting territory information. Each penguin has an individually identifiable voice which makes it possible for a parent penguin to find its child. According to Sea World, they use a series of hissing, squawking and clicking sounds around each other. The courtship rituals include synchronized movements along with head bowing and swinging. The job of feeding and raising the young is left to the biological parents, not the whole group.

Feeding Behavior

Penguins feed on krill, squid and fish. They pursue whatever is in season and whatever is plentiful. They rely on their speed and vision underwater to hunt prey, and sometimes will hunt in groups. Most penguins will hunt within 15 km of the colony. Some species, like the Emperor penguin, will travel up to 14,000 km from the colony to feed. Penguins go through annual fasting phases, which often occur during nesting, incubation and courtship periods.

Reproductive Behavior

The annual breeding season for most penguins lasts from spring to summer. Penguins reach sexual maturity when they are 3 to 4 years old. The females determine partner selection, and it is quite common for females to select the same partner each year. Penguins have an average gestation period of 63 days, and usually lay between one and two eggs at a time. Some breeds, such as the Emperor and King, will incubate a single egg on the top of its foot under a fold of abdominal skin.


Penguins are found on every continent in the Southern Hemisphere. Penguins usually live in isolated areas near large bodies of water, cold-water currents and areas with easy access to food. Since hunting is such a large part of the penguin's routine, some species may spend up to 75 percent of their lives at sea. Their colonies are usually situated on isolated beaches and large ice sheets.

Defensive Behavior

Penguins have a number of natural predators like snakes, lizards and ferrets that typically target defenseless newborns and unprotected eggs. Leopard seals, sharks and killer whales will prey on adult penguins in water. In water, penguins will use their agility to out maneuver predators and try to make it back to land. On land, penguins are relatively defenseless. They will use their vocal calls to alert others to huddle together in packs. In some cases, their massed numbers will deter predators.

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