Description & Behavior

Atlantic puffins, Fratercula arctica (Linnaeus, 1758), are also known as common puffins and are nicknamed “sea parrots” and “clowns of the ocean” due to their large triangular brightly-colored beaks. These amazing birds are the only puffins in the Atlantic Ocean and are 28-34 cm in length, with a 50-60 cm wingspan as adults. The related horned puffin, Fratercula corniculata, from the North Pacific looks very similar but has slightly different head markings.

Atlantic puffins are mainly black above and white below (called piebald plumage) with a pale gray to white face and red-orange legs with webbed feet. Their bright orange bill plates grow before the breeding season and are shed later. Puffins utter low, purring noises while in flight and low grunts and groans while nesting. They ride high on the water like ducks and must run across the surface of the water to become airborne.

There are three subspecies:

  • Fratercula arctica arctica
  • Fratercula arctica grabae
  • Fratercula arctica naumanni

World Range & Habitat

Atlantic puffins, Fratercula arctica, are pelagic sea birds that have a large range mainly in the North Atlantic ocean with a global population estimated to be about 5,700,000-6,000,000 individuals.

Atlantic puffins are found in Greenland and Northern Canada, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Nova Scotia, Iceland, Northern Scandinavia, Northern Russia, Ireland, and along the northwest coast of France. During the summer, Atlantic puffins reside on rocky cliffs of the North Atlantic and northern Europe. They winter far at sea on deep, icy water and are seldom seen within sight of land until March.

Feeding Behavior (Ecology)

Atlantic puffins hunt often 100 km or more offshore collecting several small fish lining them up in their bills facing alternately to each side. They use their tongues to hold the fish against spines in the roof of their mouths, leaving their beaks free to open and catch more fish. They also eat crustaceans and squid. Puffins are expert swimmers and divers using their wings to propel themselves underwater, often diving hundreds of feet to catch prey. They swallow their catch underwater unless they’re feeding their young, at which time they can carry back as many as 30 fish at a time in their bills.

Puffins are preyed upon by great black-backed gulls and great skuas, herring gulls (which are known to take eggs, chicks and steal fish), rats, cats, dogs, and foxes.

Life History

 

During courtship Atlantic puffins fight on the water, pairs bill and mate at sea. During the breeding season their bills are bright orange with a patch of blue bordered by yellow at the rear. Their bright orange bill plates grow before the breeding season and are shed afterward. The bills are used in courtship rituals, with pairs tapping their bills together. Males are generally slightly larger than the female, but they are colored alike.

Atlantic puffins breed on northern European coasts, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and northeastern North America, from well within the Arctic Circle to northern France and Maine. The winter months are spent far out at sea, in Europe as far south as the Mediterranean Sea and in North America as far south as North Carolina.

Roughly 95% of Atlantic 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.

Atlantic puffins are sexually mature when they are 3-6 years old. They are monogamous and both parents care for their young. Puffins construct nests typically on grassy cliffs in variably sized colonies by burrowing into loose soil usually 2-4 feet deep. Males do most of the burrow excavation using their beaks and webbed feet. Males stay with the females through the breeding season, and the pairs often sit outside the burrow.

Eggs are laid between June and July, and usually only one egg is laid per pair. Puffin eggs are round, white, and often spotted with brown. Both parents incubate the egg by tucking it under one wing and leaning their body against it. Incubation lasts around 39-49 days.

The newly hatched are fed small fish. About 38-44 days after the chicks have hatched, the parents go to sea; the chicks fast for a week and then jump into the sea at dusk or night, diving for their own for food until they can fly (are fledged) at about 49 days old.

Atlantic puffins are thought to live for more than 30 years.

Conservation Status & Comments

Atlantic puffins are very curious and often appear tame. Each year, half a million common puffins are netted for food and their feathers in Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Global population trends have not yet been thoroughly measured. There is evidence of populations declining though it is not believed to be near the levels required by the IUCN Red List (i.e. declining more than 30% in ten years or three generations). For these reasons, the species is currently evaluated as Least Concern. Population declines may be due to increased predation by gulls and skuas, the introduction of rats, cats, dogs and foxes onto some islands used for nesting, contamination by toxic residues, drowning in fishing nets, declining food supplies, and climate change.

Atlantic puffins were heavily exploited for eggs, feathers and meat in 1800s and early 1900s when populations drastically declined with the drastic reduction and elimination of some colonies. Currently the American total population is growing. The reintroduction program in Maine run by Audubon Society was successful in creating new breeding colonies of the species in that state. For more information, visit Audubon’s Project Puffin website.

References & Further Research

Breeding Atlantic Puffins, Fratercula arctica, and other birds species of Coburg Island, Nunavut
BirdLife International: Atlantic puffin, Fratercula arctica
Atlantic Puffin, Identification, All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Lowther, P. E., A. W. Diamond, S. W. Kress, G. J. Robertson, and K. Russell. 2002. Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). In The Birds of North America, No. 709 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Puffin photos from diddý’s Flickr photostream

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View related species: Animalia Chordata Aves Charadriiformes Alcidae Fratercula arctica