Life Cycle of Penguins

By Contributing Writer; Updated April 25, 2017

Penguins are fascinating birds that don’t have the ability to fly. There are about 17 species of penguins that can be found in the Southern Hemisphere. They easily adapt to the cold climate and spend most of their adult lives swimming in the cold waters.


It may take 3 to 8 years before most penguins become sexually mature. The breeding period covers the time spent for mating until egg hatching. The breeding length and time varies, but most penguins breed from spring to summer. The emperor penguins only breed once per year during the Antarctic winter, which is from June to August. In contrast, the fairy penguin breeding cycle reoccurs all year long but is relatively short, lasting only for 50 days.


Before mating, penguins undergo a courtship process. Males attract females with particular sounds and actions, and by preparing a nest site. The nests are built in areas called rookeries. Most penguin species usually mate with only one partner during an entire season. A female is also inclined to choose the same male for the following mating seasons. Penguins tend to return to the same rookery every breeding period.


After the female penguin lays an egg, an incubation period follows. Incubation is the period of warming the egg until it hatches. It’s both the partners’ responsibility to incubate the eggs. They take turns doing so every couple of days. The emperor penguin is an exception to this routine. The female emperor penguin leaves the egg on the top of her partner’s feet and goes to the sea to feed. She returns after several weeks to relieve the male penguin. The male emperor does not feed from the mating process until the incubation period. His body fat is his only source of nourishment during this time. The incubation time depends on the type of species. For erect-crested penguins, it takes only a month, but for emperor penguins, it can be as long as 66 days.

Chick Dependence

When chicks finally come out, they are usually covered with fine down feathers. These feathers are not waterproof, so the chick must stay out of water. From hatching until the complete growth of feathers, penguin adults guide, feed and protect their chicks. This period of chick dependence can range from 7 weeks to 13 months depending on the species. When the waterproof feathers are fully developed, the chicks can then swim in the cold water. This marks their independence from their parents.

Life Span

The average penguin lifespan ranges from 15 to 20 years. One factor that affects the mortality rate of penguins, especially the emperor penguins, is winter starvation. Another is predators. Examples of predators that attack penguins in the water are leopard seals, sea lions, killer whales and sharks. On land, predators usually attack the eggs and chicks. Examples of these are foxes, snakes and feral dogs. There are also birds that prey on the penguin eggs and chicks, especially in the Antarctic region. These are Antarctic skuas, sheathbills and giant petrels.