January 13, 2009
It has been interesting to watch the behavior of South Polar Skuas. While the penguins have had chicks for a while, skua eggs are just hatching into blond fuzzballs. The adults are quite not so cute. Lately, skuas been eating a lot of baby penguins (and I don’t blame them; the penguin chicks are so packed full of krill and fish, they trip over their bellies), and most of the skuas flying around the colony have red-stained chins and foreheads. Usually, a skua will single out a smaller chick on the edge of a group, and, once dragged out in the open, eat its stomach first, full of nutrient-rich seafood. If we see that happening, we run over and assess the chick’s stomach contents before the skua has consumed it all; it’s the best way to gauge the penguin’s diet. The rest of the carcass is usually left, and shells of former chicks are littered around the colony. It’s a cycle that’s repeated each season here, and is just part of life for the penguins, who walk right over the bodies like so many rocks.
The skuas can’t possibly eat them all, though, and most are doing just fine. Based on counts we did yesterday, it looks like, this year, each pair of penguins is averaging about one surviving chick. The chicks are now big enough to stand on their own, and wait around in gangs for their parents to go gather food. They are growing fast!