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3 Types of Puffins: Species, Identification and Photos

Small seabirds known for their vibrant beaks and peculiar walk, Puffins possess a unique charm distinguishing them from other avians. Seen from the cold shores of the Atlantic to remote islands, they are as adept on land as underwater. This post explores the three types of puffins, each showcasing its own notable characteristics.

Puffin Classification

Puffins are part of the Alcidae family. They live in the North Atlantic and North Pacific regions, making their homes on rugged cliffs and isolated islands. Despite their diverse habitats, all puffin species prefer coastal cliffs and islands2.

There are three species of puffins: Atlantic Puffin, Horned Puffin, and Tufted Puffin.

Read more: Puffin Facts.

3 Types of Puffins

1. Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

Atlantic Puffin
Photo by Charles J. Sharp on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Atlantic Puffin inhabits the icy waters of the North Atlantic. It is distinguishable by its black back, white chest, and vibrant beaks. Its unique look and behavior have earned it playful nicknames like “sea parrot” and "clown of the sea."

Sporting grayish-white faces and vibrant bills, Atlantic Puffins transform their appearance with the seasons. During the breeding period, their bills shine with orange, yellow, and black hues. Alternatively, non-breeding birds present a darker face and subdued bills, minimizing their earlier brightness.

These puffins eat fish, but shrimp, other crustacean types, mollusks, and polychaete worms are sometimes part of its more coastal diet. A puffin colony, primarily on predator-free islands, faces threats from airborne attacks by gulls and skuas. These birds target adult puffins and fledglings, sometimes forcing them to drop their catch.

During the breeding season, this puffin’s beak changes color from vibrant to subdued gray due to eating herring and sand eels. These puffins nest in coastal cliffs or islands; both parents share the duty of incubating their single egg. 

Then, the eggs hatch into puffin chicks, little hungry birds that must eat several times daily. Moreover, predators like the great black-backed gull hunt puffin eggs and chicks. 

The rapid decline in Atlantic Puffins has led to their status being listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN1. Climate change and changing prey distribution and quality further threaten breeding success in puffin colonies.

2. Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata)

Horned Puffin
Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

While both Atlantic and horned puffins display similarities, differences exist. The Atlantic puffin is identifiable by a blue-gray triangle on its beak. In contrast, the horned puffin is known for its horn-like extensions above its eyes and a yellow wattle at its bill's base.

These puffins live in the North Pacific Ocean and Northeast Asia, along the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia. They form large colonies on rocky cliffs and islands.

Despite their land-based nesting sites, they are adept swimmers and divers. They use their wings to propel themselves underwater while hunting for small fish. 

Moreover, they spend most of their lives at sea and only come ashore to breed. Horned Puffins can fly up to a hundred feet above seawater despite appearing awkward on land.

3. Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)

Tufted Puffin
Photo by Alan D. Wilson on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The Tufted or Tufted Puffin inhabits areas as far north as Alaska, including the Aleutian Islands, and as far south as California and Japan. It prefers nesting in rocky cliffs and isolated islands, where it excels at digging burrows. 

These types of puffins are primarily black birds with white faces and distinct, thick bills that display red, yellow, and sometimes green markings. Notable yellow tufts adorn both sexes in mating season. As seasons change, these bright features, along with red feet and white faces, fade, and tufts shed.

Regarding diet, these Tufted Puffins dive and swim to find food, including small fish and squid. Feeding sites are usually located on offshore islands away from the nests.

rhinoceros auklet
Photo by Tokumi on Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

The Rhinoceros Auklet belongs to the Alcidae family. While not a puffin, it is closely related to puffins. Why? This bird also breeds in colonies on rocky islands and coastal cliffs, consumes small fish and zooplankton, and uses its wings to "fly" underwater. 

Its horn-like bill has earned it the nickname "Unicorn Puffin." During the breeding season, the distinctive bill becomes more noticeable. 

Unlike puffins, the Rhinoceros Auklet's plumage is dark throughout the year, resembling the non-breeding attire of puffins. 

These birds primarily inhabit the North Pacific Ocean, ranging from the coasts of Japan to Alaska and down to California. They prefer to nest on rocky islands, cliffs, and coastal areas. 

These nocturnal birds can dive 180 feet underwater to feed on small fish and zooplankton. 

Conclusion

Puffins face threats such as climate change, overfishing, and pollution. Since puffins are critical in the food web, these threats also affect the entire ecosystem. We must address these environmental challenges to preserve our planet’s magnificent biodiversity.

1

BirdLife International. (2018). Fratercula arctica. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22694927A132581443. 

2

Harris, M. P., & Wanless, S. (2011). The Puffin. T & AD Poyser.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash.
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