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Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. {ret.}

Puffin

“Fratercula arctica”

Puffins are nicknamed “Sea Parrots” and “Clowns of the Ocean” due to their large triangular brightly colored beaks. The word “puffin” is thought to be derived from the word “puff” which refers to swollen and it is the Puffin chick that contributes best to this name because of its round, puffed look resulting from its dense cover of down feathers – an adaptation for retaining body heat while the parent is off fishing. Indeed, they resemble little puff balls with beak & feet. These amazing birds are 28-34 centimeters in length, with a 50-60 centimeters wingspan as adults. 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 & groans while nesting. They ride high on the water like ducks and must run across the surface of the water to become airborne. Puffins are pelagic seabirds 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. They 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, Puffins reside on rocky cliffs of the North Atlantic and northern Europe waters. They winter far at sea on deep, icy water and are seldom seen within sight of land until March. Puffins hunt often 100 kilometers 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 & squid. Puffins are expert swimmers and divers using their wings to propel themselves underwater, often diving hundreds of feet to catch prey. This seabird swallows its 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 Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls which are known to take eggs & chicks. During courtship, 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. They 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 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. 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 & 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 1 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 to 44 days after the chick has hatched, the parents go to sea; the Puffin chick 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. Puffins are thought to live for more than 30 years.

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