African Penguins


This Boulders beach Penguin information sheet has been borrowed from SANCCOB, the Penguin rescuers.

For more information about African Penguins and lots of excellent pictures, go to


English: African penguin

Afrikaans: Brilpikkewyn

Latin: Spheniscus demersus

Spheniscus is a diminutive of the Greek word spen, meaning a wedge, which refers to their streamlined swimming shape, and demersus is a Latin word meaning plunging. Other Common Names: Jackass penguin (as their call resembles a donkey’s bray), Black-footed penguin.


Statistics and Physical Description:

African penguins are about 60cm in length, and weigh between 2.4 and 3.6 kg. They have a black back and a white belly with a black chin and face patch separated from the crown by a broad white band. They have a narrow black band across the chest and down the flanks towards their legs. Males tend to be a little larger than females and have heavier bills, but these differences can usually only be seen when a pair is seen together. Juveniles have blue-grey backs and a light belly and they lack the white face markings and black breast band of the adults. They have bare, red bare patches above of the eyes, and a few randomly placed black spots on the chest and belly.

African penguins are similar to Humboldt Penguins, the main differences are that the Humboldt penguins are heavier, have proportionately longer flippers and a narrower white band on the head.



The breeding range of the African penguin extends from Hollamsbird Island, off central Namibia, to Bird Island in Algoa Bay. The African penguin is the only penguin species that breeds in Africa, and it is found nowhere else in the world. Its distribution coincides roughly with the cold, nutrient rich, Benguela Current, but is further determined by the availability of offshore islands as breeding sites.

Diet and Feeding:

African penguins feed primarily on shoaling pelagic fish such as anchovies, pilchards (sardines), horse mackerel and round herrings but they will also eat squid and crustaceans. When on the hunt for prey, African penguins can reach a top speed of close to 20 km/h. The distance that African penguins have to travel to find food varies greatly. On the west coast a typical foraging trip could range from 30 to 70 km for a single trip. On the south coast, foraging birds cover an average of 110 km per trip. When penguins are feeding their young, the distance they can travel from the breeding colony is more limited. An average dive of an African penguin lasts about two and a half minutes, and is regularly about 30m in depth, although dive depths of up to 130m have been recorded.



African penguins live in colonies. They start breeding from between two to six years of age, but normally at four years. As with most other penguins, the African penguin breeds in colonially, mostly on rocky offshore islands, either nesting in burrows they excavate themselves, or in depressions under boulders or bushes.

Historically, nests were excavated in the sun-hardened guano that existed on most islands. However, with the removal of the guano for fertiliser, surface nesting and nesting under bushes and other objects has become more frequent. Shelter at the nest site is important to provide shade and for protection against predators of eggs and chicks, such as Kelp gulls and Sacred ibises. Unlike many other bird species, African penguins have an extended breeding season. In most colonies, birds at some stage of breeding will be present throughout the year. Broad regional differences do exist, though, and the peak of the breeding season in Namibia (November and December) tends to be earlier than the peak for South Africa (March to May). African Penguins are monogamous, and the same pair will generally return to the same colony, and often the same nest site each year. About 80 to 90% of pairs remain together in consecutive breeding seasons, and some are known to have remained together for over 10 years.


They usually lay two eggs, although it is not common for both of the chicks to survive. The incubation period is about 40 days, with the male and female participating equally in the incubation duties. The length of the incubation shift is dependant on the availability of food at the time, but is typically about two and a half days. Both parents continue to brood the chicks, and for about the first 15 days the chicks are constantly brooded by one of the adults. After this, the chicks attain full control over their body temperature, and no longer need heat from their parents. However, at this stage the chicks are still at risk from predators, and the adults continue to guard the chicks until they are about 30 days old, after which both parents can go to sea simultaneously. Chicks that are left alone often form creches, which serve more to reduce attacks on chicks from adults than to avoid predation.

African penguin chicks can fledge (moult) anytime from 60 to 130 days of age, losing their fluff and gaining “blue” feathers. The fledging period is often dependent on the availability and quality of food. The adults continue to feed chicks while they remain at the colony. When the young “blues” eventually leave the colony, they do so without their parents. These juveniles remain away from their natal colonies for anything from 12 to 22 months, after which time they return, normally to their natal colony, to moult into adult plumage.



The moult cycle of African penguins is generally more synchronous than the breeding cycle. In South Africa most penguins moult from November to January, while in Namibia most moult in April and May.

The entire moult takes about 20 days to complete, with the feather-shedding period lasting about 13 days of this period.

Prior to the moult the penguins spend about five weeks feeding and laying down fat deposits, but lose almost half their body weight during the moult process. At the end of the moult the penguins return to sea and spend about six weeks fattening up again.


Conservation Status:

Often referred to as the planet's most charismatic creatures, most of the 17 penguin species of the planet are in decline. Less than 10% of the original African penguin populations remain. In 1900, it was estimated that about 1.5 million birds lived on Dassen Island alone. By 1956 the population had fallen to roughly half that in 1900, and had halved again by the late 1970s, when there was an estimated 220,000 adult birds. By the late 1980s the number had dropped to about 194,000 and in the early 1990s there was an estimated 179,000 adult birds. There are about 56,000 breeding pairs of African penguins world-wide and they are listed as “Vulnerable” by the 2000 IUCN Red List.

The reasons for the significant decline in the African penguin populations are well known. Initially, the decline was due mostly to the exploitation of penguin eggs, and habitat alteration and disturbance associated with guano collection at breeding colonies. These factors have now largely ceased, and the major current threats include competition with commercial fisheries and oil pollution.



Other threats include competition with Cape fur seals for space at breeding colonies and for food resources, as well as predation by seals. Feral cats are present on some of the islands and pose a problem at a few of the colonies.

African penguins also face predation of eggs and chicks by avian predators such as Kelp Gulls and Sacred Ibises, while natural terrestrial predators, such as mongoose, genets and leopard are present at the mainland colonies.

Oiled seabirds sometimes get a second chance, as SANCCOB and other partner conservation organisations are very successful in cleaning, rehabilitating and releasing them. These birds have a very good survival rate.



Penguins are adapted primarily to cool aquatic environments, and the need to reduce heat loss is of major importance to all penguins. However some species, including the African penguin, have been able to successfully exploit warm terrestrial environments.

Behavioural and physiological adaptations have enabled the African penguin to overcome the problem of being over-insulated for life on land in a temperate climate. One of the ways in which African penguins have adapted to terrestrial life in the temperate zone is to confine their activities at breeding sites largely to dawn and dusk periods. Breeding birds nest mostly in burrows or under some other form of shelter, such as boulders and bushes, which provide some protection from the intense solar radiation during the day. Birds that are not incubating or brooding chicks, and other non-breeding birds, spend the day at sea or loaf in beach groups and swim regularly. Some birds do remain in the open in the colony; but these birds generally orientate themselves with their backs to the sun so that their feet, flippers and oral surfaces are shaded.

Physiological responses to heat stress include panting (evaporative cooling) and moderate hypothermia.



A few of the African penguin colonies are accessible to tourists. Due to the penguin’s very nervous nature, tourist activities at these sites must be very strictly controlled.

African penguins at the Boulders Beach colony in Simons Town (a mainland site near Cape Town) are notably less nervous than other African penguins, and are unusually tame and accustomed to people. However, being a mainland site, the colony is exposed to threats that are not an issue at island colonies. These include predation by terrestrial predators, and exposure to disease via mosquitoes and terrestrial disease-carrying birds.



...............penguins_sunset penguins_rock penguins_pair penguins_sea