Penguins, Predators & Prey

Falkland Islands - Magellanic Penguins, Predators and Prey

Penguins, Predators and Prey is a series of stamp issues depicting each of the familiar Falkland penguins, together with some of their respective predators and prey. This issue features the Magellanic Penguin.

The Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus is one of the five species which breed in the Falkland Islands. They are medium-sized penguins which grow to 70cm tall and weigh about 4 kilos. The males are slightly larger than the females. They can live up to 25 years in the wild.

Magellanic Penguins are the most numerous of the Spheniscus penguins, a genus which includes the African, the Humboldt and the Galapagos species. They breed along the coasts of Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands. The world population is estimated to be approaching 2 million pairs with around 5% breeding in the Falklands. During the winter they are pelagic and can be seen as far north as Rio de Janiero.

Magellanic Penguins were first encountered by Europeans about 600 miles north of the Falklands during Ferdinand Magellan’s ill-fated voyage of circumnavigation in 1520. Magellan referred to them as “Black Geese” and noted, with culinary precision, that they had to be skinned rather than plucked. In 1578, Sir Francis Drake’s crew clubbed 3000 for provisions in one day on Penguin Island, off the coast of Patagonia. In 1592, after discovering the Falklands, John Davis sailed the Desire to the same island. They filled the ship’s stores with 14000 salted down but insufficiently dried penguins reckoning that 4 men would eat 5 birds per day during the voyage home. As the ship became becalmed under the tropical sun, and with only stagnant water to drink and no fresh greens, the penguins took their revenge. The carcasses went rotten. Swarming maggots began to eat everything including the ships timbers and even the men themselves. Only 16 of the original crew of 76 survived to tell the tale as the vessel reached Berehaven in Bantry Bay. They were carried ashore by townsfolk as the tiny harbour filled with the stench of putrefying penguins.

In the Falklands, this species is affectionately known as the “Jackass” penguin because its loud and oft repeated spring song is reminiscent of the hee-hawing of a donkey.

The cover illustration shows a Magellanic penguin underwater. All penguins are flightless seabirds and hunt for food under the waves. Their bodies are heavy and muscular and their wing bones are fused together as wings take on the role of paddles. Their tails act as rudders to steer them through the water.

30p Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus at the entrance to its breeding burrow

In the Falklands, Magellanic Penguins breed in individual underground burrows up to 5 metres long which they dig in the peaty soil. They are particularly fond of tussac islands but are also common in other areas where tussac is absent. They are colonial nesters and often form quite large though loose assemblages. “Jackasses” are the only Falkland species to nest in burrows. This has the obvious advantages of protecting the eggs and young from aerial predators but there is a risk from flooding during rainstorms. Both birds and burrows can become infested with “Jackass” fleas. Magellanic penguins return from their winter pelagic wanderings in September. Males appear first to reclaim and clean out their burrows. Females are able to recognize their mates through their call alone and often mate with the same partner each year. Two eggs are laid in mid to late October. Incubation lasts about 40 days after which the chicks are fed and cared for by their parents for about a month. Individual birds can forage up to 500 km from the nest site although, during the chick rearing stage, the parents generally remain within 30 km. Following the breeding season the penguins go to sea to fatten up in preparation for the annual moult for which they gather silently along favoured beaches in February. By mid-April they have returned to the ocean for the austral winter.

75p Falkland Sprat Sprattus fuegensis

Magellanic penguins are opportunistic feeders, taking roughly equal proportions of fish, squid and crustaceans. During chick-rearing, foraging trips take place on a daily basis during daylight hours. Birds generally hunt at depths of less than 50m, but may dive up to 100m. One of the more common prey species is the Falkland Sprat or Fuegian Sardine Sprattus fuegensis. This a small fish about 150mm in length which breeds in spring and early summer in the coastal shelf waters around the Falkland Islands and feeds on copepods, euphausiids, mysids, pelagic amphipods, chaetognaths, eggs and fish larvae. Large numbers appear close inshore during the summer making them ideal prey for penguins. The maximum recorded age is five years. The Falkland Sprat also lives along the Patagonian coast between 43° 30'N and 55° S.

£1 Falkland Skua Catharacta antarctica

Magellanic penguins encounter a number of predators at sea such as sea lions, leopard seals and orcas. They also face predation of chicks and eggs by avian predators such as caracaras, gulls and skuas although, by nesting in burrows, such predation is greatly reduced. The Falkland Skua is amongst the fastest and most skilled of all the flying birds. Add to that power and strength, high intelligence and longevity and the penguins have a formidable foe. Skuas are quick to spot any weak or infirm “Jackasses” and often attack them in mobs. Being without the claws and hooked beaks of hawks, skuas have to rely on each other to take hold of different parts of their prey in order to tear it apart. Falkland Skuas are entirely pelagic during the southern winter and come ashore in the Falklands only between October and April. The illustration shows part of their distinctive “courtship walk”. They nest in loose colonies, often close to their prey which, in addition to Magellanic Penguins, also includes other penguins and prions. They also specialize in harrying and forcing shags to re-gorge their food in flight over the ocean.

£1.20 Magellanic Penguins Spheniscus magellanicus performing “ecstatic" display

Breeding Magellanic Penguins are often seen stretching skyward and calling in what is termed the “ecstatic” display. Males will perform this in the spring to attract a mate. Once paired up, a male and female will often display simultaneously to strengthen the bond between them. Each bird sings loudly while they perform. These rituals convey territorial, sexual and identification information both to each other and to other members of the colony. They are often enacted as a pair bonding exercise after a skirmish with a predator or a rival. Such displays continue throughout the breeding season and in particular in the evening when the adults return to the nesting burrow from the sea. To experience a calm summer evening close to a “Jackass” colony, with the air full of penguin song, is amongst the most magical of Falkland experiences.

Liner written by Tony Chater.

Technical details:

Technical details:

Artist: Tony Chater

Printer: BDT International Security Printing

Process: Lithography

Perforation: 14 per 2cms

Stamp size: 30.56 x 38mm

Sheet Layout: 50 (2 x 25)

Release date: 21 August, 2015

Production Co-ordination: Creative Direction (Worldwide) Ltd