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Penguin Architecture – What does a penguin nest look like?

By October 1, 2019November 17th, 2019No Comments

Penguin Architecture – What does a penguin nest look like?

By Megan Spofford

One of the most fascinating characteristics of birds is the fact that they are egg-layers, and because of this, they must create highly specialized shelters to house them — nests. Amongst the penguin species, the variation in nesting materials is almost as diverse as the penguins themselves. Materials available vary based on habitat, but all eighteen species have developed specialized nests to protect their eggs in creative ways.

Types of Penguin Nests

Scrape nests

A scrape nest is essentially an indentation in the ground that has been scraped out by the nails of the penguin that created it. The species that create this type of nest are Snares, Erect-crested, Rockhoppers, Gentoos and Yellow-eyed Penguins. Within a scrape nest, the penguin will add things such as rocks, sticks, vegetation, bone, feathers, etc. — pretty much anything it can grab with its mouth — to create a throne worthy of jealousy. Interestingly, Yellow-eyed Penguins go out of their way to build nests that are not within sight of another penguin (probably to avoid a confrontation over territory). However, nearly all of the other penguin species live in breeding colonies that have nesting sites in close proximity to each other. Erect-crested Penguins, Macaronis and Northern and Southern Rockhoppers additionally utilize tussocks, which are thick and long isolated bushels of grass that protect their eggs.

Mounds or flat ground

While those whole build scrape nests do use various items to fill their shelter with items that include rocks and pebbles, there are species that use only rocks and pebbles without scraping a depression first. These species of penguins build nests on top of rocks and pebbles by gathering and setting them out in an array or stacking them. Adelie, Chinstrap and Royal Penguins almost exclusively build their nests on the rocky shores they inhabit, while Macaroni and Gentoo Penguins utilize this method in some regions. In some cases, especially with Gentoos and Adelies, individuals will steal materials from each others’ nests to add to their own, and spark territory wars in the process. Macaroni Penguins (who only come to shore for breeding purposes) create mounds as well as use tussocks. 

Gentoo Penguins adding vegetation to their scrape nest.
African Penguin nest boxes placed by African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary, donated by GreenRscreed.
Photo Source: GreenRscreed


Burrows are the most utilized nest by penguins as six of the eighteen penguins use them, but they vary in structure based on what is available. Penguins will use the scraping technique to form a new burrow, but the difference between the two is that the burrow has a covered top, so the entire structure resembles Bag End from The Hobbit, without the door.

Penguins can also utilize natural burrows such as caves, cracks, and holes, or even under tree branches in the case of Fiordland Penguins, who nest in vegetation of the rainforest of New Zealand. Little Penguin burrows are created solely by the males. Magellanic Penguins dig burrows up to 1 meter deep in soil or guano beds. Galapagos Penguins, who nest the farthest north of all the species, do so in between dried lava formations decorated with twigs and leaves; that is if they nest at all. This species is environmentally cued to breed only if cool water temperatures are below 25 degrees Celsius.

The final three species: African and Humboldt Penguins are also burrowers, but they use guano (bird poop!) as their major building tool. They fill cracks and holes in the ground with guano which can build up after many years, and provide great space for burrowing. Unfortunately, it is also nutrient dense and has been harvested by humans as a fertilizer. In doing so, the availability of valuable burrowing area for penguins is severely reduced, and they are forced to lay eggs in more vulnerable locations. Guano harvesting is a contributing factor to the endangered status of the African Penguin, and has led to substantially decreasing numbers in Humboldt Penguins as well. Because of this, scientists have started placing artificial nests made from various durable materials on the islands they inhabit to increase the rate of hatching.

The “no-nesters”

While most penguins have reason to build a nest, there are two species of penguin that are “no-nesters”. The Emperor and King Penguins nestle their eggs on their feet and keep the egg warm by a brood pouch, a patch of bare skin,on the belly of the penguin to protect their eggs from the harsh elements of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic environments in which they live.

Each type of nest, or lack thereof, is a fascinating natural piece of architecture. If you were a penguin and had all the resources available for each type of nest, which would you choose?

A King Penguin doesn’t use a nest. It incubates its egg on top of its feet.

Isn’t it amazing how different species of the same bird do things so differently? Let us know what you think about all this. We love being able to provide you with this information and can’t do it without your support. Please consider donating to Penguins International so we continue to do so.

And read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

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  5. Carlson, A. L. and J. S. Townsdin (2012). Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.