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All Things Puffin.
Information and pictures on Puffins.
Educational, Zoological, and Classification info.



The common name puffin describes any of three auk species (or alcids) in the bird genus Fratercula (Latin: little brother - probably a reference to their black and white plumage, which resembles monastic robes) with a brightly colored beak in the breeding season. These are pelagic seabirds that feed primarily by diving. They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil.

All three puffin species have large bills. They shed the colorful outer parts of their bills after the breeding season, leaving a smaller and duller beak. Their short Puffin wings are adapted for swimming with a flying technique under water. In the air, they beat their wings rapidly (up to 100 times per minute) in swift flight, often flying low over the ocean's surface.

The male Atlantic Puffin builds the nest and exhibits strong nest site fidelity. Both sexes of the Horned Puffin help to construct their nest. The burrows of the Atlantic and Horned Puffin are usually only about 1 meter (3 feet) deep, ending in a chamber, but the tunnel leading to a Tufted Puffin burrow may be up to 2.75 meters (9 feet) in length. The Atlantic Puffin burrow is usually lined with material such as grass, leaves and feathers but is occasionally unlined. The eggs of the Atlantic Puffin are creamy white but can be occasionally tinged in lilac.

PuffinUnlike many animals, puffins form long-term pair bonds. The female lays a single egg and both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick. The incubating parent holds the egg against their brood patch with their wings. The chicks fledge at night. After fledging, the chicks spend the first few years of their lives at sea, returning to breed after three to seven years.

Like many auks, puffins eat both fish and zooplankton, but feed their chicks primarily with small marine fish several times a day. The puffins are distinct in their ability to hold several (sometimes over a dozen) small fishes at a time, crosswise in their bill. This allows them to take longer foraging trips, since they can come back with more energy for their chick than a bird that can only carry one fish at a time.

Scientific classification

Kingdom:    Animalia
Phylum:       Chordata
Class:         Aves
Order:         Charadriiformes
Family:       Alcidae
Genus:       Fratercula Brisson, 1760

Three species are recognized today:

  • Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctica
  • Horned Puffin, Fratercula corniculata
  • Tufted Puffin,   Fratercula cirrhata

The genus Fratercula probably evolved in the northern Pacific, like most lineages of auks. However, at least 2 un-described prehistoric species are known to have occurred in the western Atlantic comparatively soon after the genus' emergence:

  • Fratercula sp. 1 (Yorktown Early Pliocene of Lee Creek Mine, USA)
  • Fratercula sp. 2 (Yorktown Early Pliocene of Lee Creek Mine, USA)

Another extinct species, Dow's Puffin (Fratercula dowi) was found on the Channel Islands of California until the Late Pleistocene or Early Holocene. It is possible that it became extinct due to over hunting and egg-collecting by early human settlers.

Horned PuffinPuffin
The Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) is an auk, similar in appearance to the Atlantic Puffin; this bird's bill is yellow at the base and red at the tip. It is a pelagic seabird that feeds primarily by diving for fish. It nests in colonies, often with other auks.
The yellow bill plate grows before the breeding season and is shed later. They have a small fleshy black "horn" above their eyes. They have a white face with a dark line extending from the back of the eye and red feet.
This species breeds on rocky islands off the coasts of Siberia, Alaska and British Columbia, in burrows, in rocky cavities or among rocks. It winters far out to sea. Feeding areas are usually located fairly far offshore from the nest. There is usually one chick and both parents feed the young.
Horned Puffins will return from hunting with several small fish in their beaks. They also eat squid and crustaceans.
The population of these birds has declined due to the introduction of rats onto some islands used for nesting.

Tufted Puffin
The Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) is a medium-sized pelagic seabird about 30 cm in length and weighing about three quarters of a kilogram. It is mostly black with a white facial patch, and a very large bill. The yellow tufts for which it is named are on the side of the head when the bird is in breeding plumage.
Tufted Puffins can be found throughout the northern Pacific Ocean. Originally, this bird nested as far south as southern California; some colonies still remain off northern California. Their diet is almost exclusively fish, which they catch by diving from the surface. Adults may also feed on squid or other invertebrates. Feeding areas can be located far offshore from the nesting areas.
Most birds spend winter far out to sea.
Breeding takes place on isolated islands: over 25,000 pairs have been recorded in a single colony off the coast of British Columbia. The nest is usually a simple burrow dug with the bill and feet, but sometimes a crevice between rocks is used instead. It is well-lined with vegetation and feathers. Courtship occurs through skypointing, strutting, and billing. A single egg is laid, usually in June, and incubated by both parents for about 45 days. Fledglings leave the nest at between 40 and 55 days.

Atlantic Puffin
The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) is a seabird in the auk family. It is a pelagic species that feeds primarily by diving for fish, but also eats other sea creatures, such as squid and crustaceans. Its most obvious characteristic is its brightly colored beak during the breeding seasons. Also known as the Common Puffin, it is the only puffin species which is found in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Atlantic Puffin is 28-34 centimeters in length, with a 50-60 centimeter wingspan. The male is slightly larger than the female. It is mainly black above and white below, with gray to white cheeks and red-orange legs. The bill is large and triangular, and during the breeding season is bright orange with a patch of blue bordered by yellow at the rear. The characteristic bright orange bill plates grow before the breeding season and are shed after breeding. The bills are used in courtship rituals, such as the pair tapping their bills together. During flight, it appears to have grey round under wings and a white body; it has a direct flight low over the water. The related Tufted Puffin and Horned Puffin are visually similar.
This species breeds on the coasts of northern Europe, Faroe Islands], Iceland and eastern North America, from well within the Arctic Circle to northern France and Maine. The winter months are spent at sea far from land - in Europe as far south as the Mediterranean and in North America to North Carolina. About 95 per cent of the puffins in North America breed around Newfoundland's coastlines.
The largest puffin colony in the western Atlantic (estimated at more than 260,000 pairs) can be found at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, south of St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Feeding areas are usually located fairly far offshore from the nest. Atlantic Puffins can dive approximately 50-200 feet underwater and are propelled by their powerful wings which are adapted for swimming. They use their webbed feet as a rudder while submerged. Puffins collect several small fish when hunting, and line them up in their bills facing alternately to each side. They use their tongues to hold the fish against spines in their palate, leaving their beaks free to open and catch more fish. Additional components of their diet are crustaceans and mollusks. A puffin can sometimes have a dozen or more fish in its beak at once.
The Atlantic Puffin is typically silent at sea, except for soft purring sounds it sometimes makes in flight. At the breeding colonies the birds make a deep growl.
Atlantic Puffins are colonial nesters, using burrows on grassy cliffs. They will also nest amongst rocks and scree. Male puffins perform most of the work of clearing out the nest area, which is sometimes lined with grass, feathers or seaweed. The only time spent on land is to nest, and mates are found prior to arriving at the colonies.
The Atlantic Puffin is sexually mature at the age of 4-5. The species is monogamous and has bi-parental care. A single-egg clutch is produced each year, and incubation responsibilities are shared between both parents. Total incubation time is around 39-45 days, and the chick takes about 49 days to fledge. At fledging, the chick leaves the burrow alone, and flies/swims out to sea, usually during the evening. Contrary to popular belief, young puffins are not abandoned by their parents (although this does occur in some other seabirds, such as shearwaters). Synchronous laying of eggs is found in Atlantic Puffins in adjacent burrows (Ehrlich, P., Dobkin, D., Wheye, D. 1988.)


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