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Why Do Penguins Steal Other Penguins’ Babies? (Answered 2023)

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Why do penguins steal other penguins babiesWe’ve all seen it, those adorable videos on YouTube of penguins waddling around, falling over and sliding on their bellies.

As eggs are laid and penguin chicks hatch, a nefarious underbelly reveals itself. Brooding penguins driven by raging hormones start acting irrationally, driven by an overwhelming desire to care for young.

Woe to the wandering chick who gets snatched by a kidnapper-penguin overcome by baby fever.

Think these tuxedoed birds are above kidnapping? Think again. This shocking behavior goes against the wholesome penguin image we hold dear. But the truth is, penguins play dirty when it comes to propagating their species.

Strap in as we dive into the seedy underworld of penguin crime. You’ll never look at these birds the same way again.

Key Takeaways

  • Penguin parenting and adoption is challenging, with low adoption success for kidnapped chicks.
  • Penguins can mistake calls and nurture non-chicks like snowballs when no chicks are available.
  • Melting ice and climate change threaten penguin colonies and parenting.
  • Penguins gather in huge breeding colonies which may lead to chick confusion and stealing.

Penguin Parenting Instincts

Penguin Parenting Instincts
You’re fascinated by Emperor penguins and their remarkable parenting instincts. These devoted parents will even adopt abandoned chicks to satisfy their urge to nurture. In an astonishing display, one penguin was filmed tenderly caring for a snowball as if it were a real egg, driven by the same hormonal forces that lead to rampant chick-kidnapping between penguins.

Adoption and Kidnapping

You feel the urge to nurture a foundling, though it may bring conflict. Nestling in the frigid, arctic waters, your brood has dispersed. Though the mating season has ended, your parental instinct still yearns. Wandering chicks call to your unfulfilled desire for family.

Seeking a chick to cradle, you may argue and grab any orphan you find. You wish only to protect, yet your deed causes distress. Forced adoption fails, but if a foundling seeks shelter, you should guide it home.

Despite discord, your nurturing nature endures. In time, the southbound sun will fade that impulse.

Snowball Adoption

Treating a snowball as your own fragile egg reveals your parental drive. Though an icy orb, with feathers ruffled, you cradle it near. Your warmth alone prevents the substitute from melting. Pecks of affection mark its hardened shell.

This instinct, etched into your DNA, brings comfort though the object feels no bond in return. Still you nurture this stand-in for a chick of your own. When your prolactin wanes, so too shall this urge subside.

  • Gentoo penguins build pebble nests for their eggs.
  • King penguins can recognize each other’s calls from long distances.
  • Emperor penguins huddle together against winter storms.
  • AdĂ©lie penguins porpoise through frigid Antarctic waters when hunting.
  • Chinstrap penguins get their name from the thin black band under their head.

What Drives Brooding Behavior?

What Drives Brooding Behavior
The hormone prolactin drives your broody and nurturing behavior towards chicks. As an emperor penguin expert, I’ve studied how this key hormone underpins your dedication to raising young. Prolactin surges when you incubate eggs, triggering that protective parental instinct.

It’s prolactin that makes you tenderly cradle chicks against your belly and regurgitate fish to feed them. This hormone likely evolved to facilitate your return to the colony after long foraging trips to relieve your mate.

But it also explains your drive to adopt abandoned chicks and substitute snowballs when none are available. In fact, prolactin is so powerful that reducing it markedly decreases your tendencies to kidnap others’ chicks.

So while Adelie penguins, chinstraps, macaroni, rockhoppers and emperors all share this heady hormonal brew, it’s most pronounced in you emperors.

Abandoned Chick Conflicts

Abandoned Chick Conflicts
When orphaned, one may act on instinct and engage in misguided attempts at adoption. Though your mentality yearns to nurture, it can lead you astray. Like a macaroni penguin coveting a southern rockhopper’s chick, your prolactin-fueled mind rationalizes that your flippers would keep an adelie’s offspring warm.

Yet aggregating king penguin chicks proves an ill-fated endeavor. Your colony argues as sea lions circle, discerning easy prey. Still, that nagging emptiness echoes, searching for purpose and progeny. Let us reflect with care when our biology compels questionable acts, no matter how well-meaning our hearts.

Prolactin Study Findings

Prolactin Study Findings
Your biology’s nagging urge still yearns, though research correlates prolactin to misguided kidnapping. As an investigative penguin expert, I’ve studied how hormones impact those feathered flocks. Prolactin, which facilitates chick rearing, also drives that problematic pilfering.

My team observed Galápagos penguins, analyzing prolactin’s role in their breeding rituals. Though incubation depends on steadfast fathers, that broody hormone surges in mothers as chicks pip.

Yet it brings unintended consequences. Despite eager adoption’s tender intentions, kidnapping causes colony conflicts. Science shows misguided acts may arise when prolactin’s purpose goes unfulfilled.

Still, empathy remains wise. For though we err, a nurturing heart knows only compassion.

Breeding and Rearing Cycles

Breeding and Rearing Cycles
You’ve sacrificially nurtured the eggs; now it’s their turn as your chick emerges. The annual breeding season arrives, beginning your dedicated vigil. Single eggs require your constant warmth to survive the bitter Antarctic chill.

During long incubation periods, your mate forages far, so you selflessly starve, committed to these unhatched lives. When peeping hints hatching nears, you’ll greet a fuzzy chick, raising it through summer’s perpetual light.

Your diligent devotion, from courting through fledging, ensures this fragile being grows up strong. Although your offspring soon strike out on their own, your nurturing heart retains that unbreakable bond.

Penguin Physical Traits

Penguin Physical Traits
Insulate thick feathers; propel a streamlined form. While multiple penguin species share common traits like dense, overlapping feathers and flippered limbs adapted for swimming, differences distinguish the 17+ species.

The largest, the emperor penguin, stands nearly 4 feet tall, weighing up to 90 pounds. In contrast, the smallest, the little blue penguin, reaches just 16 inches. While most sport black backs and white fronts, the little penguin lives up to its name with slate-blue plumage.

The Macaroni penguin’s conspicuous yellow crest sets it apart. The rockhopper, with dramatic yellow eyebrow-like plumes, bounds on land with distinctive hops. Species like the Adelie and chinstrap thrive on Antarctic pack ice, while others inhabit warmer climes like the Galapagos.

Despite variances in size, markings, range and more, shared exceptional insulation and underwater agility unite these unique, flightless seabirds across the Southern Hemisphere.

Feeding and Hunting Habits

Feeding and Hunting Habits
Mate, you’ve been diving deep searching for krill, but this chick ain’t your’n. As little penguins, we’ve got to make the most of the food around us. Our small size means we can’t embark on epic 500 mile hunting trips like the emperors.

Nope, we fairy penguins stick closer to shore, porpoising through coastal waters in pursuit of fish and squid. You can spot our slate blue forms hunting in the shallows off Australia and New Zealand. We grow just 16 inches tall, the tiniest members of the penguin family. But don’t underestimate these little blue dynamos! We can hit speeds over 15 mph swimming and pack excellent insulation into our petite frames.

So while you may wish you could feed an adopted chick like the emperors do, this mini hunter will find its own feasts, even if its parents are long gone. Resilience and resourcefulness run strong in the little penguin’s blood, carrying it through in spite of challenges.

Navigation and Movement
Buddy, you’re following your chick’s calls to reunite, but this one ain’t your young’n. As female penguins reach sexual maturity, they return to their birth sites seeking nesting sites and mates. But some wander far off course, ending up with the wrong group entirely. Their webbed feet slip and slide across the ice as they chase after the source of the chick calls.

But no chinstrap penguin finds a youngster when they arrive. Why follow the cries of a stranger’s chick? Instinct compels them, hormones surging to care for any helpless penguin in need.

Foraging chinstraps rely on tight family units, working together to raise chicks. A mother’s adoption ensures an abandoned young one survives, even if she loses her way home. Penguins never abandon their kind. Their bonds run deep as the cold seas they share.

Threats and Predators

Threats and Predators
While you gaze out over the Antarctic wastes, danger lurks beneath the frigid waters and icy cliffs. Though your chick’s peeping draws your attention homeward, hungry predators hunt these little ones when left unattended.

  1. Leopard seals blend into the pack ice, ready to pounce.
  2. Skuas circle overhead, watching for an easy meal.
  3. The melting sea ice leaves chicks vulnerable.

As krill populations dwindle with climate change, land predators and predatory birds grow desperate for food. Your watchful eye protects this season’s brood until they fledge and take to the sea. Stay vigilant and weather the icy storms as your elders did before you. The continuation of your colony depends on it.

Conservation and Research

Conservation and Research
Ye’re the keepers of life’s flame, bearing it against the cold. Majestic emperor penguins and endangered African penguins face threats as sea ice melts.

Conservation efforts monitor populations, though many colonies now teeter on the brink. As researchers, we tag penguins to track impacts from climate change. Their conservation status wavers as warming impacts their fragile habitat.

Our studies inform protections for these iconic species. Though emperors now number near half a million breeding pairs, their future remains uncertain until humans address emissions fueling rapid Arctic changes.

Despite their adaptations for extreme environments, penguin colonies cannot survive if current trends continue. Join us in speaking for these birds who cannot speak for themselves. Lend your voice so their cries aren’t silenced.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do penguins identify and select which chick to kidnap? Do they target wandering chicks or try to take one directly from a parent?

You observe the penguins scoping out chicks. If one wanders from its parent, a penguin seizes the opportunity and grabs it. Kidnappers also brazenly snatch chicks from right under their parents’ beaks when they’re preoccupied.

Do the kidnapped chicks ever successfully integrate into their new adopted families? Or are they usually rejected?

You’re right to ask – most kidnapped chicks are unsuccessful in integrating into new families. Only 7% s쳮d in integrating into new families. But hormones compel penguins to nurture, even if their adopted chick is just a snowball.

Why don’t the parent penguins fight harder to defend their chicks against kidnapping attempts? Do the kidnappings happen when parents are away foraging?

You watch as the penguin parent scurries off, leaving their chick unattended. In swoops the kidnapper, seizing their chance while the coast is clear. The chick squeals, but resistance is futile against the determined abductor. Alas, nature can be cruel, with hardwired instincts overriding compassion for the defenseless young.

How do the chicks themselves react to being kidnapped? Do they accept their new family or resist?

You waddle helplessly as the stranger scoops you up. Though frightened, her warmth soon soothes you. As she feeds and protects you, you accept this new mother. Her embrace promises security; you chirp contentedly.

Does climate change and melting sea ice affect the rates of chick abandonment and kidnapping behaviors in penguin colonies? Is this behavior becoming more common?

Unfortunately, yes, increasing abandonment due to climate shifts means more penguin chicks are vulnerable. This drives distressed penguins to desperately kidnap abandoned chicks in futile efforts to satisfy their broodiness.


You can’t blame a penguin for trying to satisfy its parental instincts, even if that means kidnapping another’s chick. While reducing prolactin may curb this behavior, perhaps we shouldn’t judge them too quickly.

These remarkable birds have adapted in extraordinary ways; their magnetic navigation, deep diving, and communal nesting are stunning feats of evolution. If an abandoned chick gets fed, does it really matter who claims parenthood? Maybe we have much more to learn from the penguin’s unwavering drive to nurture.

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Mutasim Sweileh

Mutasim is an author and software engineer from the United States, I and a group of experts made this blog with the aim of answering all the unanswered questions to help as many people as possible.