Puffin Facts: Types, Behavior, Habitat

The northern bird that resembles a penguin

Flexible orange tissue at the base of a puffin's beak helps it hold multiple fish in its mouth.
Flexible orange tissue at the base of a puffin's beak helps it hold multiple fish in its mouth.

mlorenzphotography, Getty Images

Puffins are cute, stocky birds, known for their black and white plumage and orange feet and bills. Their appearance has earned them numerous nicknames, including "sea parrots" and "clowns of the sea." Puffins are often compared to penguins because of their plumage, waddling walk, and diving ability, but the two birds are not actually related.

Fast Facts: Puffin

  • Scientific Name: Fratercula sp.
  • Common Name: Puffin
  • Basic Animal Group: Bird
  • Size: 13-15 inches
  • Weight: 13 ounces to 1.72 pounds
  • Lifespan: 20 years
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: North Atlantic Ocean (Atlantic puffin); North Pacific Ocean (tufted puffin, horned puffin)
  • Population: Millions
  • Conservation Status: Atlantic puffin (vulnerable); other species (least concern)

Types of Puffins

Depending on which expert you ask, there are three or four puffin species. All puffin species are types of auks or alcids. The Atlantic or common puffin (Fratercula arctica) is the only species native to the North Atlantic. The tufted or crested puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) and the horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) live in the North Pacific. The rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) is definitely an auk and only sometimes considered to be a type of puffin. Like the tufted and horned puffin, it ranges across the North Pacific.

Tufted puffin
Tufted puffin. Created by MaryAnne Nelson / Getty Images

Description

Puffin plumage depends on the species, but the birds are generally brownish-black or else black and white, with black caps and white faces. Puffins are stocky, with short tails and wings, orange webbed feet, and large beaks. During the breeding season, the outer portions of the beak are bright reddish orange. After breeding, the birds shed the outer part of their bills, leaving smaller and less-colorful beaks.

The Atlantic puffin is about 32 cm (13 in) long, while the the horned puffin and tufted puffin average 38 cm (15 in) long. Male and female birds are visually indistinguishable, except that the male in a pair tends to be slightly larger than his mate.

Habitat and Distribution

The open sea of the North Atlantic and North Pacific is home to puffins. Most of the time, the birds live out at sea, far from any coast. During the breeding season, they seek islands and coastlines to form breeding colonies.

The Atlantic puffin ranges from Iceland, Greenland, and Norway as far south as New York and Morocco. The horned puffin may be found from the coasts of Alaska, British Columbia, and Siberia, wintering along the California and Baja California coast. The tufted puffin and rhinoceros auklet range largely overlaps that of the horned puffin, but these birds also overwinter off the coast of Japan.

Diet

Puffins are carnivores that feed on fish and zooplankton, preying primarily on herring, sandeel, and capelin. Puffin beaks feature a hinge mechanism that allows them to hold several small fish at a time, making it easier to transport small prey to feed a chick.

Puffin (Fratercula arctica) carrying hunted sandeels (Ammodytes), Wales, UK
Puffin (Fratercula arctica) carrying hunted sandeels (Ammodytes), Wales, UK. Mike Turtle / Getty Images

Behavior

Unlike penguins, puffins can fly. By rapidly beating their short wings (400 beats per minute), a puffin can fly between 77 and 88 km/hr (48 to 55 mph). Like other auks, puffins also "fly" underwater. Despite their mobility in the air and sea, puffins appear clumsy when walking on land. Puffins are highly vocal at their breeding colonies, but silent when they are out at sea.

Reproduction and Offspring

In captivity, puffins reach sexual maturity at three years of age. In the wild, breeding usually occurs when the birds are around five years old. Like other auks, puffins are monogamous and tend to form lifelong pairs. Each year, the birds return to the same colonies. They build nests among rocks or burrows in the soil, depending on the colony geography and puffin species.

The female lays a single white or lilac-colored egg. Both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick, which is commonly called a "puffling." Pufflings lack the well-defined plumage markings and colorful bills of their parents. Chicks fledge at night and head out to sea, where they will remain until they are ready to breed. The average lifespan of a puffin is about 20 years.

Young immature puffin outside burrow with adult parent.
Young immature puffin outside burrow with adult parent. tirc83 / Getty Images

Conservation Status

The horned puffin and tufted puffin are classified as being of "least concern" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The IUCN lists the Atlantic puffin as "vulnerable" because populations are rapidly declining across the species' European range. Researchers believe the decline is due to multiple factors, including food shortage caused by overfishing, predation, pollution, and mortality in fishing nets. Gulls are the principle natural predator of puffins, although they are also preyed upon by eagles, hawks, foxes, and (increasingly) domestic cats. Atlantic puffins are hunted for eggs, food, and feathers in the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

Sources

  • Barrows, Walter Bradford. "Family Alcidae". Proceedings of the Boston Society for Natural History19: 154, 1877.
  • Harrison, Peter (1988). Seabirds. Bromley: Helm, 1988. ISBN 0-7470-1410-8.
  • Lowther, Peter E.; Diamond, A. W; Kress, Stephen W.; Robertson, Gregory J.; Russell, Keith. Poole, A., ed. "Atlantic Puffin (." The Birds of North America Online. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2002.Fratercula arctica)
  • Sibley, David. The North American Bird Guide. Pica Press, 2000. ISBN 978-1-873403-98-3.