Puffins are known as sea parrots that belong to the family Alcidae. As you read these puffin facts, you'll discover the different species of puffins, including the World's Puffins Breed, the Atlantic Puffin, the Horned Puffin, and the Tufted Puffin.
Known for their loyalty, puffins form strong bonds with their partners and return to the same nesting sites year after year. Sea puffins' distinctive features include their colorful appearance and impressive diving and swimming abilities. They also play an essential role in coastal ecosystems.
13 Facts About Puffins
1. Puffins are seabirds that belong to the family Alcidae.
Puffins, also known as "sea parrots," are small seabirds that belong to the family Alcidae, which also includes murres and the Auk family. An individual puffin weighs 400 to 600 grams on average. Puffins spend most of their time in the ocean, going to land during breeding season only.
They have brightly colored bills, striking facial markings, and matching orange feet, which make them resemble parrots. Puffins live mainly in the northern parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic regions.
They have a broad distribution across the North Atlantic, with notable populations inhabiting coastal areas of Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Canada, and the northeastern United States. In the Pacific Ocean, puffins live along the coastlines of Alaska, Russia, and Japan.
2. There are four species of puffins.
Did you know that there are four puffin species? Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) are the smallest puffins known for their beak and distinctive black-and-white feathers. They are also called the Common Puffin. Small yet mighty, the Atlantic Puffin tackles the vast North Atlantic Ocean; it measures just 10 inches and weighs around 500 grams.
The cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean are the home of the other two puffin species: the Horned Puffin and the Tufted Puffin. A bit larger than the Atlantic Puffin, the Horned Puffin gets its name from the small black 'horn' above its eyes. Though not as vibrant as the Atlantic Puffin's, its large, triangular beak is still quite a sight.
The Tufted Puffin is the largest of the three. It has yellow 'tufts' of feathers that frame its head during the breeding season. Its elongated beak, all-black body—including its belly—and sturdy build set it apart from the other two.
The Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) is the only species not in the Fratercula genus. They have a black body, white underparts, and a distinctive ridged bill with a horn-like projection. Rhinoceros auklets breed along the Pacific coastline, with significant populations in Alaska, British Columbia, and Japan.
3. They thrive on land, sea, and air.
Their adaptability makes these birds unique. They make homes on the cliff edge, underwater, or in the sky. On land, puffins stand firm. Despite the wind and the rough terrain, their strong legs and webbed feet keep them steady on cliff edges - a helpful trait in nesting season. With their sharp claws and beaks, they can climb steep rock faces quickly.
They also swim with ease, gliding underwater with their wings like flippers. You might see a puffin dive almost 60 meters down, flapping its short, strong wings to push forward. Their webbed feet steer them swiftly, helping them dodge predators and catch fish.
Despite their heavy bodies and short wings, puffins can fly 55 miles per hour, flapping their wings 400 times a minute. They're also long-distance flyers who travel thousands of miles.
4. They have a unique and colorful beak.
Next up in our list of puffin facts: A puffin's beak has bright red, orange, yellow, and sometimes blue hues. Their colorful beaks are eye-catching and play a crucial role in courtship displays, mate recognition, and communication within the colony. The beak is also a highly efficient tool for capturing and holding multiple fish simultaneously.
But the puffin's beak isn't always a kaleidoscope of color. As the breeding season ends, the beak goes through a process known as 'beak casting.' The vibrant colors fade, and the beak's keratin layer sheds, leaving behind a smaller, dull-gray beak for the winter months.
5. They build their nests in burrows or rocky crevices.
Puffins prefer building their nests in burrows or rocky crevices, often on cliffs or remote islands. These nesting sites protect them from predators and harsh weather conditions. There are eight islands, known as the puffin island, where a large colony of puffins lives.
A puffin's burrow lies tucked away in soft soil or turf. It can extend up to 3 feet deep, and its entry point hides amidst grass or rocks. The burrow helps regulate temperature, providing insulation during colder periods and reducing exposure to excessive heat.
In areas where burrowing is impossible, such as rocky cliffs, puffins utilize the available rocky crevice to create their nests.
6. They have a varied diet.
Puffins are skilled hunters with a diverse diet of several fish species, such as herring gulls, sand eels, capelin, and sprat. They rely on their excellent diving and swimming abilities to chase and catch small fish underwater. However, they must be on guard since other sea birds steal puffins fish, like gulls and skuas.
Furthermore, puffins wait to eat their prey. Instead, they use their tongue and the roof of their mouth to hold the fish against their palate. This clever tactic allows them to continue hunting, filling their beak with as many fish as possible.
7. Puffins mate for life.
One interesting fact about puffins is that these loyal sea birds breed with the same mate for life. During the mating season, which typically occurs in spring or early summer, puffins return to their breeding colonies on remote coasts or islands to establish nesting sites.
Both parents take turns incubating the egg, sharing the responsibility of keeping it warm and protected. Furthermore, the puffin parents often use the same burrow they used the previous year. The incubation period usually lasts around 40-45 days, and the female puffin lays a single egg. The parents take turns incubating the puffin eggs, keeping them warm until they are ready to hatch.
The mating season for puffins is a time for reproduction and social interaction. As colonial nesters, they form large groups or colonies near one another. These colonies can have thousands of nesting pairs, creating a bustling and noisy environment during the spring breeding season1.
Like puffins, parent penguins also take turns in incubating their eggs. Learn more about the equally adorable baby penguins.
8. Young puffins are known as pufflings.
Puffin chicks, also known as pufflings, have soft, grayish-brown down feathers. These feathers provide insulation and help regulate their body temperature. During their early stages, puffin chicks depend on their parents for food and protection.
The devoted parents take turns venturing to sea to catch fish, returning to the burrow to feed their hungry offspring. Pufflings eat a diet of small fish, which the parents carry in their bills.
As they grow, they gradually develop their juvenile feathers, replacing downy feathers. After several weeks, the puffin chicks gain strength and coordination, preparing for their first venture into the sea. They take their maiden flight, leaving the safety of their nesting site to embark on their oceanic journey.
While the specifics vary between species, puffins generally spend the next few years at sea before returning to their breeding grounds as mature adults.
9. They communicate with each other using a variety of vocalizations.
Vocalizations also play a crucial role in territorial defense and communication within the puffin colony. Puffins use specific calls to assert their territory and warn neighboring puffins, mates, and others about their presence.
When gathered in large colonies, the puffins engage in a cacophony of calls, creating a bustling and lively soundscape. This collective vocalization not only helps in maintaining social cohesion but also serves as a means of locating and recognizing individual birds within the colony.
10. They are a favorite among wildlife enthusiasts and tourists.
Puffins have captured the hearts of wildlife enthusiasts and tourists alike, becoming a popular attraction in many coastal areas. Numerous locations around the coasts and islands offer puffin-watching tours, allowing visitors to observe these captivating birds in their natural habitats.
Visitors can witness their behaviors during these tours, including their impressive flying skills, diving abilities, and amusing antics. These tours often occur in regions known for their puffin colonies, such as Iceland, Scotland, Newfoundland, and Alaska.
11. Puffins can live up to 20-25 years.
Another fact about puffins is that they are known for their relatively long lifespan compared to other seabird species. On average, puffins live up to 20-25 years, although some individuals have reached even older ages. Several factors influence their longevity. Firstly, puffins only breed once a year and typically only produce one offspring. This slow reproductive rate allows puffins to invest more energy and resources in survival.
Secondly, puffins have adapted to a life at sea, where they spend most of their lives. Their specialized beaks and diving abilities allow them to catch fish and other prey efficiently, contributing to their overall health and longevity.
12. Puffins have an excellent sense of sight in daylight and at night.
One of the key factors contributing to their night vision is the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer behind the retina. This layer enhances their ability to see in low-light conditions by reflecting light through the retina, allowing them to navigate through the darkness easily.
With their keen night vision, puffins can accurately locate and capture their prey in the darkness. This helps them survive during the breeding season when they return to their nests, often situated on cliffs or rocky crevices along the eastern and western coast in the cover of night.
13. The sea parrot faces numerous threats.
Regarding conservation status, puffins are species of most minor concern. However, some subspecies of puffins may face conservation challenges. For example, hunters target puffins in the Faroe Islands and Iceland.
Additionally, the Atlantic Puffin population in some regions has declined due to habitat degradation, climate change, predation, and changes in food availability2. Human activities, such as disturbance and pollution, have also impacted some puffin colonies.
As ocean temperatures rise, puffins are affected by fish distribution and abundance changes. More intense and frequent storms also disrupt their feeding and breeding patterns. The rising sea levels also flood out their breeding grounds. Man-made accidents like oil spills further destroy their waterproof feathers and disable them from flying.
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Grant, M. L., Bond, A. L., & Lavers, J. L. (2022). The influence of seabirds on their breeding, roosting and nesting grounds: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Journal of Animal Ecology, 91(6), 1266–1289.
Leigh, D. M., Kersten, O., Star, B., Anker‐Nilssen, T., Burnham, K. K., Johnson, J., Provencher, J., & Boessenkool, S. (2022). Sympatry of genetically distinct Atlantic Puffins ( Fratercula arctica ) in the High Arctic. Ibis, 165(3), 1022–1030.