Puffin

Fratercula arctica

Quick Bio for Puffins:

Status: Vulnerable
have normally 1 chick
Weight: 650 g
Wingspan: 47-63 cm
Diet: Piscivore

Physical description of Puffins

Puffins are compact, robust seabirds with a very distinctive beak. They typically measure about 25 to 30 centimeters in length, with a wingspan of approximately 50 to 60 centimeters. Their bodies are rounded with a short tail, and they have relatively short wings which contribute to their distinctive whirring flight. Puffins’ legs are set far back on their bodies, aiding in their swimming ability, as they use their wings to propel themselves underwater.

The most striking feature of puffins is their large bill, which is broad, deep, and laterally compressed, featuring vivid colors of orange, red, and yellow during the breeding season. These colors serve as a visual signal among puffins and fade to a duller shade outside of the mating period.

Their facial area exhibits a unique pattern with the cheeks being white and a distinctive black stripe running down from the eye to the throat, giving them an easily recognizable appearance. The combination of their stout body, colorful bill, and their bright, button-like eyes make puffins one of the most endearing and photogenic seabirds.

Trio of Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) in water off the coast of Maine. During the mating season their beak colors are at their most vibrant.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Trio of Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) in water off the coast of Maine. During the mating season their beak colors are at their most vibrant.

Distribution and habitat of Puffins

Puffins are distributed across the temperate and subarctic waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, benefitting from the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream. This warm ocean current significantly enhances the marine ecosystems of regions including the coasts of Iceland and Norway, making them rich feeding grounds for puffins. Their habitats are characterized by a mix of open sea, where they spend a considerable part of the year, and coastal areas where they breed and raise their young. These breeding sites are typically on islands and steep cliffs, offering protection and suitable conditions for nesting.

The birds’ range includes the nutrient-rich waters around Iceland, the Faroe Islands, parts of the British Isles, Norway, eastern Canada, and the northeastern United States. These areas provide essential resources for puffins, including ample fish and zooplankton, facilitated by the warm currents that increase the biodiversity and productivity of these waters. The combination of accessible feeding areas and safe nesting sites within these temperate to subarctic environments underscores the puffins’ adaptability and the ecological significance of the Gulf Stream in supporting their populations.

Puffin behaviour

Puffins engage in a variety of social behaviors and communication methods, crucial for their survival and interaction within their colonies. These seabirds are notably social, often found in large groups during the non-breeding season and nesting in close-knit communities on cliff edges or islands during the breeding season. Their loyalty extends to their nesting sites and mates, with pairs frequently reuniting each year to raise their single offspring, affectionately known as a puffling.

Vocalizations play a key role in puffin communication, with a repertoire of grunts and growls used primarily within the confines of their burrows for mate recognition and bond reinforcement. However, outside their nests, puffins rely more on visual signals and body language. Bill clapping, a rapid opening and closing of their colorful beaks, serves as a display towards other puffins, while sky pointing—stretching their head and bill upwards, sometimes accompanied by wing-flapping—is used for territorial or mating displays.

In addition to their complex social interactions, puffins are adept hunters, diving into the ocean to catch fish. They propel themselves underwater using their wings, demonstrating remarkable agility in pursuing their prey. Their ability to carry multiple fish crosswise in their beaks, a skill facilitated by the unique structure of their jaw, allows them to transport ample food to their chicks. These diverse behaviors and communication strategies highlight the puffins’ intricate social structure and their adaptation to life in dense colonies, where cooperation and recognition among individuals are essential for their success.

Puffin (Fratercula arctica) running on water, or to be more precise taking flight after sitting on the waters surface. It does look like it is walking across the surface of the water though.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Puffin (Fratercula arctica) running on water, or to be more precise taking flight after sitting on the waters surface. It does look like it is walking across the surface of the water though.

What do Puffins eat?

Puffins primarily feed on small fish, such as sand eels, herring, and capelin, which constitute the bulk of their diet. Their foraging strategy involves making several short trips throughout the day to nearby fishing grounds, where they dive to depths of up to 60 meters (about 200 feet) to capture their prey. The efficiency of their hunting is facilitated by their excellent underwater vision and their ability to use both their wings and feet for propulsion and steering through the water.

In addition to fish, puffins occasionally consume crustaceans and mollusks, diversifying their diet based on the availability of prey in their environment. The variation in their diet across different geographic locations underscores their adaptability to local ecosystems and the resources available therein.

The feeding habits of puffins also play a significant role in the upbringing of their young. During the breeding season, both parents partake in the feeding of their chick, making multiple foraging trips each day to ensure the puffling receives enough nutrition to grow. This cooperative parenting effort is crucial for the survival of their offspring, as the chick remains in the burrow for about six weeks until it is ready to fledge and venture into the sea on its own.

Puffins’ food habits not only reflect their remarkable hunting skills and adaptability but also emphasize the importance of marine biodiversity and healthy fish stocks in sustaining these iconic seabirds and their reproductive success.

Puffin (Fratercula arctica), flying with fish in its beak, Borgarfjördur, Iceland
Licensed from Shutterstock
Puffin (Fratercula arctica), flying with fish in its beak, Borgarfjördur, Iceland

Mating and Parental care of Puffins

Puffins form monogamous pairs for the breeding season, often reuniting with the same partner year after year. Their courtship rituals include elaborate displays such as bill tapping, where pairs tap their brightly colored beaks together, and mutual preening, which strengthens their bond. These rituals are performed both before laying eggs and throughout the nesting period to maintain pair bonds.

Nesting typically occurs in burrows excavated in soil or crevices in cliffs, where a single egg is laid. Both parents share the responsibility of incubating the egg for around 6 weeks until it hatches. The monogamy and cooperative breeding strategy of puffins ensure a high level of care for their offspring, maximizing the chick’s chances of survival. After the breeding season, puffins spend the rest of the year at sea, returning to land only to breed.

The Atlantic puffin in the flight (Fratercula arctica) coming in to land at its nesting burrow in a breeding colony on the Shetland islands
Licensed from Shutterstock
The Atlantic puffin in the flight (Fratercula arctica) coming in to land at its nesting burrow in a breeding colony on the Shetland islands

Puffins and their ecosystem

Puffins play a significant role in their ecosystems, acting as both predators and prey within their marine and coastal environments. As predators, they influence the population dynamics of small fish and invertebrates. By selectively feeding on certain species, puffins can affect the composition of the marine community, which in turn influences the broader ecosystem balance. Their foraging behavior can also contribute to the redistribution of nutrients across different parts of the ocean, as they capture fish from deeper waters and bring them to the surface.

As prey, puffins are integral to the food web, supporting higher predators such as larger birds of prey, foxes, and marine mammals that can access their nesting sites. Their presence in large breeding colonies also supports a variety of other species, including parasites and scavengers that rely on puffin burrows and leftover food resources.

Furthermore, puffins have an indirect impact on coastal ecosystems through their nesting activities. The excavation of burrows can affect soil composition and stability, potentially influencing vegetation patterns and erosion processes on islands and cliffs where they breed.

Their role as a key species in marine and coastal ecosystems highlights the importance of puffins in maintaining ecological balance and biodiversity. Monitoring puffin populations can also serve as an indicator of ocean health, reflecting changes in fish populations, pollution levels, and the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems. Conservation efforts to protect puffins and their habitats thus have broader implications for preserving marine biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Sand eels are the preferred foods of the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica). Quite often, they take a full mouthful so they can bring some back to their young chicks on the nest.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Sand eels are the preferred foods of the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica). Quite often, they take a full mouthful so they can bring some back to their young chicks on the nest.

Conservation status and human impact on Puffins

The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) is classified as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This status reflects concerns about declining puffin populations across their range, largely attributed to threats such as overfishing, which reduces their food sources, climate change affecting marine ecosystems and prey availability, and habitat loss due to human activities and natural predators.

The IUCN status of the Atlantic puffin underscores the importance of these birds as indicators of ecosystem health. Declines in puffin populations can signal broader environmental issues that may also affect other marine species and the overall balance of marine ecosystems. Conservation efforts aimed at protecting puffins, including the establishment of protected marine areas and sustainable fishing practices, are crucial not only for the survival of this species but also for maintaining the health and biodiversity of marine ecosystems where they play a significant role.

Puffin in French, German, Spanish ...

Latin Name
Fratercula arctica
Alternative Names
Atlantic Puffin, Common Puffin
French Names
Macareux Moine, Perroquet de Mer, Calculot
German Names
Papageitaucher, Papageientaucher, Puffin
Spanish Names
Frailecillo Atlàntico, Frailecillo Comùn, Frailecillo

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