All About Puffins
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Universally beloved by birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike, puffins are one of the most easily recognized seabirds in the world. With their almost cartoon-like cuteness, these extremely photogenic seabirds are typically black and white with red and orange markings. In spring, their toucan-like bill and feet turn a vibrant orange color as they prepare for mating season. Just before winter sets in, they shed their colorful outer bill, leaving behind a noticeably smaller and duller-colored beak.
Puffins have been called the “sea parrots” because of their uniquely shaped and brightly colored bills. While they’re extremely agile swimmers and divers, puffins are sometimes called “the clowns of the sea” because they can be quite clumsy and amusing while they’re on land—especially when taking off and landing.
The name puffin comes from their “puffball” appearance, which was first noted in a description of the Atlantic puffin from 1570. With their fat little bellies and dark capes, the birds looked like overweight medieval friars, which is why their scientific name is Fratercula arctica, which means “the little friars of the sea.”
While the Atlantic puffin is the bird we imagine when we hear the name puffin, there are actually four distinct species in the Alcidae (Auk) family of seabirds.
1. The Tufted Puffin
The largest of all puffins, this species is easily identified by its bright yellow tuft of Fabio-like feathers. Found in the Northeast Pacific, the tufted puffin ranges from Russia and Japan to southern California, though their largest colonies are found on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
Most tufted puffins dig burrows in dense soil and raise chicks on coastal slopes in the summer months. Once the chicks learn to fly, they head to sea where they dive deeper than any other puffin (up to 350 feet) in search of more than 50 species of prey.
2. The Atlantic Puffin
The smallest in the family, the Atlantic puffin is the only puffin species living in and around the Atlantic Ocean. About half of the entire global population nests in Iceland—the puffin-watching capital of the world—while the rest are found in Maine, Newfoundland, Labrador, Greenland, United Kingdom, Spain, Norway, and Russia.
In the early 1900s, Atlantic puffins were hunted to extinction in the U.S. The only reason these birds are seen here today is thanks to the tireless work of ornithologist Stephen Kress, who helped reestablish the Maine colony on Eastern Rock in the 1970s and 80s. The techniques he developed have since been used to successfully restore Atlantic puffin colonies on several islands in and around Maine.
3. The Horned Puffin
While the horned puffin looks very similar to the Atlantic puffin, it’s a bit larger and, if you look closely at the eyes, you’ll see the characteristic black spike, or horn, for which it’s named.
The horned puffin mainly nests along the coasts of Russia, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands. While they feed on shelf waters within 50 miles of their coastal colonies when breeding, these expert swimmers migrate far into the Central Pacific Ocean as they hunt during the winter months. Some have been spotted as far away as Hawaiʻi!
Just like other puffins, horned puffins will dig dens and burrow in the earth, but they’re the only species to also nest in rocky talus slopes and the crevices along cliffs.
4. The Rhinoceros Auklet
The fourth and often forgotten puffin, the rhinoceros auklet looks more like her auklet cousins than her puffin sisters. While this accounts for the misnomer, the rhinoceros auklet is still anatomically a puffin. In fact, the other three species evolved from this common ancestor, which ironically makes the rhinoceros auklet the original puffin! Smaller in size with less dramatic coloring, the rhinoceros auklet is also the only member of the puffin family that is nocturnal at the colony and will only feed their chicks at night.
Identified by two white plumes on its face and a single horn atop its bill, this species is sometimes called the unicorn puffin or the horn-billed puffin. Seldom found more than 10 miles from shore, the rhinoceros auklet nests on rocky islands and cliffs along the western coast of North America and the eastern coast of Asia.
While all four species have unique physical characteristics, they’re ecologically similar. For instance, all puffins are excellent swimmers who use their wings to propel themselves as they hunt for prey, which makes it look like they’re flying underwater. And while they’re not known for flying, puffins can flap their wings up to 400 times a minute and reach speeds of 55 miles an hour. Their wings move so fast that they become a blur, which makes the puffin look like nothing so much as a black and white football.
Puffin diets vary from colony to colony, but they mostly feed on small fish like herring, hake, capelin, and sand eels. They’re one of the few birds that can hold multiple fish in their bills at one time. Using their raspy tongues to hold their catch against their spiny palate, puffins are able open their beaks to catch more fish. The average catch is between 10 and 12 fish, though the record in Britain is 62 fish at once!
Puffins can live for 20 or more years, are monogamous, and will mate for life. A bonded pair spends about eight months apart during the winter, only returning to their colony on land to reunite and mate. Once paired, they maintain their bond by ceremoniously rubbing their bills together.
Once they build a burrow, they will typically nest in that burrow every year, laying just one egg each year. Pufflings need lots of care and require several feedings each day, so moms and dads share the responsibility of incubating the egg and rearing their chick.
Puffins breed in colonies from April to August. Once they’ve fledged, chicks leave the colony and venture out to sea without their parents. They remain at sea until they are two or three years old, then they return to the colony where they were born, sometimes nesting close to the burrow where they hatched.
When it’s not breeding season, adult puffins live mostly solitary lives at sea. While they are social and chatter up a storm during mating season, they remain perfectly silent when they’re on the open ocean.
Gulls are puffins’ greatest natural predators. Some, like the great black-backed gull, actively hunt adult puffins. Others, like herring gulls, are kleptoparasites, which means they don’t hunt adult puffins directly but will steal their catch as well as eggs and young chicks.
This kind of predation does not have a long-term impact on puffin populations; it’s a natural cycle that keeps these species healthy and ensures gull families can feed their own young. However, puffins have no defense against human-introduced species like cats, rats, dogs, and foxes that aren’t naturally occurring on the islands where they nest. Predation by these invasive species can have a significant impact on puffin populations, sometimes wiping them out entirely.
Climate change, which is fueled in large part by the plastics industry, is the greatest threat to puffins today. As the planet warms and the Arctic melts, ocean currents are changing.
In the Atlantic Ocean, for example, melting Arctic freshwater is slowing down the Labrador Current which allows warm waters from the Gulf Stream to come farther north. For humans, the four-degree shift in water temperature wouldn’t feel much different, but for many North Atlantic fish, it’s the equivalent of flying from Boston to Miami in winter and not being able to take off your coat and boots when you get to the beach.
Rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change cause prey fish to flee into colder waters that are too deep or too far away from nesting colonies for puffins to capture. During particularly warm periods, researchers in Maine have observed desperate puffins bringing back butterfish, a species commonly found in mid-Atlantic waters that pufflings are unable to eat. They’ve watched chicks starve to death as their parents are dive bombed by hungry gulls who love butterfish.
In addition to its impact on the distribution and availability of prey species, climate change also leads to sea level rise and more frequent severe weather events. Flooding, torrential downpours, and coastal erosion wash eggs out to sea, drown young, and cause adults to abandon their habitats.
Oil spills, plastic and chemical pollution, overfishing prey species like herring, ghost fishing gear, and the accidental or intentional introduction of predators like foxes and rats by humans are also significant threats to puffins.