Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

With their unmistakable, rainbow-coloured bills and black-and-white plumage, puffins are probably the most widely recognized and best-loved of the seabirds. Because of the shape of its head and its large bill, the Atlantic puffin is often called the “sea parrot”.

Description

In the breeding season, both male and female puffins have jet-black heads, necks and upper parts, white underparts, a white face patch, a small red and blue area around the eye, and bright red legs and feet. The Atlantic puffin’s bill is large, flattened sideways, and covered by colourful plates that are blue and yellow at the base, and bright red tip and edges. In winter, the plates fall off, and the bright red bill colouration is lost, although the blue and yellow remain. Like other alcids, Atlantic puffins have large, webbed feet placed far back on their bodies, a stubby neck, and short wings on their pigeon-sized bodies.

In winter, the Atlantic puffin’s face patch is grey with no coloured eye-ring. In juveniles, the bill is a dark grey colour and is much smaller than the typical, triangular puffin bill.

Distribution

The Atlantic puffin breeds throughout the North Atlantic, including parts of the northern Newfoundland coast, Greenland and the Arctic islands to the east of Hudson Bay.

Ecology

Puffins have short wings which help the bird to “fly” underwater but are not efficient in the air- a puffin must beat its wings 300-400 times per minute, or 5-7 times per second, to maintain maximum flying speed. Although puffins are not graceful flyers, they can reach speeds of up to 88 km/hour. When they arrive at their colony, however, they often end up crash-landing!

Like other alcids, the Atlantic puffin dives from the surface of the water and swims after small fish, which it catches and holds in its bill until it has a full load- one bird is known to have carried 61 fish in a single trip! The puffin arranges the little fish crosswise in its bill and uses its raspy tongue to hold them against the roof of its mouth while it catches the next fish. The roof of its mouth has rearward-pointing spines on it to help hold the slippery catch. A puffin returning from a fishing expedition looks like it has a moustache, with the heads and tails of its catch drooping from either side of its bill.

Atlantic puffins nest in large colonies along ocean shorelines, often on top of cliffs or dunes. The parent birds use their feet and long claws to dig out a burrow approximately a metre long, with a small chamber at the end that they line with grass and leaves. In the Arctic and other areas where the ground is too hard to dig, the burrow may be simply a rock crevice or a space under a boulder pile. The female lays one egg, which is generally plain white but may be lightly spotted, and is incubated by both parents for about 6 weeks. When the chick, known as a ‘puffling’, hatches it is covered in black and white down, but is unable to keep itself warm for the first week, and so must be brooded by a parent during this time. Once the chick is a week old, both parents leave it to forage for fish, which they deliver to the nest.

When the chick is about 6 weeks old, its parents begin the migration to their wintering grounds, the open ocean off the coast of Labrador south to Massachusetts. The chick becomes hungry and leaves the burrow on its own, usually at night, and heads to the water, possibly using light reflected off the ocean as a guide. It launches itself off its shoreline or cliff and swims rapidly away from the colony. By leaving the burrow at night, the chick avoids predatory gulls, which kill many puffins during the daytime. Great black-backed gulls, in particular, prey on both young and adult Atlantic puffins, often catching them as they leave or return to the colony. Flocks of puffins often swoop around colonies in unison, a behaviour that may have evolved to confuse predators and allow the puffins to come and go safely.

Once young Atlantic puffins leave their colony, they do not return to land for at least 2 years, and are not ready to breed until they are 5 years old. When they do begin to breed, puffins mate for life- as long as 20 years- and return each season to the same nest site, often near where they were originally raised.

A breeding puffin colony is full of activity. Pairs of Atlantic puffins are often seen pecking at each other’s bills, an endearing performance that probably helps to maintain the pair bond. Male puffins make ritual presentations of grass or feathers to their mates, while neighbours use a series of strange growls to converse with each other, even underground between burrows. Puffins defending their territories often engage in “wrestling matches”, with males grabbing each other’s bills and trying to twist their opponent off his feet- often resulting in both adversaries tumbling downhill together! Puffins are very social, and such battles may attract a crowd of other birds, who appear to be watching the event.

Atlantic puffins are common seabirds, with a world population of over six million pairs. However, they face many threats, including oil spills, hunting, predation by escaped domestic animals, accidental drowning in fishing nets, water pollution, and overfishing, which reduces the populations of fish that they rely on for prey.