Welcome to the world of the puffin bird – a black and white seabird with an orange beak and captivating eyes. These little aviators are known for their diving skills and playful nature. Join me to uncover more facts about these adorable clowns of the sea!
1. Their plumage gives them camouflage
Puffins, members of the auk family, are renowned for their playful demeanor and distinctive appearance, earning them the endearing nicknames “sea parrots” and “clowns of the sea.” They are among the amazing Arctic animals. There are four types of puffins, three of them belong to the genus Fratercula and bear striking resemblances to each other, while the fourth species, the rhinoceros auklet, stands out with its unique characteristics.
– Tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) is the largest species. It derives its name from the bright yellow tuft of feathers that adorns its head during the mating season.
– The horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) receives its name from the prominent black spike that protrudes above its eye during the breeding season.
– The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) is the smallest species and the only one that resides in the Atlantic Ocean.
– The Rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) earned its name due to the impressive facial plumes it possesses. This unique bird features a solitary horn on top of its bill, which emits a fluorescent glow and is believed to play a role in communication during the mating season. It has also been referred to as the horn-billed puffin and the unicorn puffin.
Except for the Rhinoceros auklet, the other puffin species display a robust physique, black and white feathers, and prominent beaks. Although puffin birds and penguins have some appearance features in common, these 2 animals are not related.
The contrasting black markings and white underbellies of puffin birds help them survive in their environment. They serve as a form of camouflage, making it challenging for predators to detect them. When viewed from above, their black plumage blends with the deep blue color of the water and when seen from beneath the waves, their white bellies blend with the sky. This complicates the predators’ ability to locate them.
These seabirds are easily recognized by their vibrant orange bills and matching-colored feet. However, during the winter season, the birds venture into the ocean and engage in a molting process, which leads to the loss of numerous distinguishing features. One notable change is the shedding of the outer layer of their bills, resulting in smaller and less vibrant beaks with a dull grey appearance.
This characteristic will merge again in the spring, particularly during the mating season. Once the breeding season concludes, puffins shed their outer bills once again, and this cycle continues annually.
Three species within the Fratercula genus live in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the northern regions. Meanwhile, the one from the Cerorhinca genus resides along the western coast of North America, spanning from Alaska to central California.
The tufted puffin bird can be found in the Northeast Pacific, stretching from southern California to Arctic Alaska. They also inhabit areas in Russia and Japan within the Western Pacific. The Aleutian Islands of Alaska host their largest colonies.
Horned puffins make their nests amidst the numerous islands scattered along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and the Russian coastline. During winter, they embark on long migrations, venturing far away from the shores into the Central Pacific Ocean. Interestingly, a few individuals have been discovered stranded on the beaches of Hawaii!
The Atlantic species is distributed along the eastern coast of Canada and the northern US, spanning all the way to the western coast of Europe and northern Russia. Iceland serves as the primary nesting site for about half of the global population of this species.
The Rhinoceros Auklet thrives along the western coast of North America as well as the eastern coast of Asia. During the summer months, it establishes its nesting grounds on the coastal islands of Canada and Alaska.
If you want to see the puffin birds, here are some locations: Newfoundland, Skomer Island in Wales, Iceland (in the summer season, from May to August), Svalbard and Vesterålen in Norway, Cannon Beach in Oregon, and Maine in the US.
3. They eat a lot
Puffins are carnivorous animals that eat different types of food, such as tiny squid, small fish, and planktonic crustaceans. In regions such as Shetland and Orkney, their diet predominantly consists of sand eels. These seabirds eat a lot, about 40 minuscule fish per day. They need to eat this amount to sustain their well-being and nourish their offspring.
Puffins are equipped with specialized structures on their palate known as denticles, which serve as barbs. These denticles play a crucial role in assisting puffin birds while hunting by helping them secure fish in place.
Using their spiny tongues, puffins can skillfully impale fish against these denticles and successfully retrieve an average of 10 fish during each dive. In some rare cases, they can even get 62 fish in their beaks simultaneously. The birds usually hunt during the morning hours.
In spite of their diminutive size, puffin birds encounter difficulties due to the presence of larger predators in their environment, including birds and animals. The great skuas frequently bother and prey upon them, sometimes even stealing their food. They’re also preyed upon by black-backed gulls, stoats, rats, cats, and dogs.
4. They can fly
Although puffins look clumsy, they are actually great athletes. They possess the remarkable ability to reach impressive speeds of up to 55 mph while flying. Nonetheless, their flight demands substantial exertion, as they must vigorously flap their wings between 300 and 400 times per minute to maintain flight.
As you see, with a sturdy body like this, landing is a challenge to these birds. They usually awkwardly tumble onto the grass, crash into the water, or collide with other birds in the way.
Besides the ability to fly, the birds can also swim proficiently. Puffins demonstrate remarkable swimming skills in addition to their adeptness in flying. When submerged underwater, they employ a unique technique resembling their flight pattern. By flapping their wings, puffin birds effectively maneuver through the depths, while their webbed feet function as rudders, assisting them in capturing fish.
What’s impressive is that puffin birds can hold their breath for a remarkable duration of up to 30 seconds and venture to depths of 200 feet to look for food before emerging to replenish their air supply.
The seabirds use body language to talk to each other, such as foot stomping and wide-mouthed displays to convey their displeasure. They can also create distinctive noise, which sounds like a cow’s moo.
During the winter season, puffin birds embark on extensive migrations, and certain individuals from the Northern Isles have been observed in a range of locations including Spain, Newfoundland, Italy, North Africa, and Portugal.
5. Puffin birds mate for life
Puffins typically inhabit coastal cliffs where they form large colonies, but they primarily occupy their time swimming on the ocean’s surface. They just go to the land to mate.
These sociable birds practice monogamy, often forming long-term partnerships with the same mate. Every year, they faithfully return to the exact nesting area they used before with the same partner. The seabirds engage in a distinctive mating ritual known as billing. They keep turning their heads and gently rubbing their bills together, creating a unique display of affection.
They dig a burrow with their feet and beak, strategically crafted within the earth or nestled between rocks along treacherous cliffs. This genius method shields them from potential threats posed by predators. Some puffin birds, instead of making their own burrows, even commandeer rabbit burrows, evict the previous inhabitants to claim the shelter for themselves.
In the depths of the burrow, a nest is constructed, carefully lined with a blend of seaweed, grasses, and feathers. The females lay only one egg, and both males and females will alternatively incubate the egg for approximately 40 days.
The new chick hatches, known as a puffling, and boasts feathers in shades of grey and black, along with a rather unremarkable beak. Throughout the warmer months, it’s taken care of by both parents. The juvenile stays in the burrow, eats fish brought by its parents, and grow quickly.
After approximately 36 to 45 days, the puffling is strong enough to embark on a perilous journey down the cliff to the sea. This challenging task is undertaken under the cover of night to evade predators. The young will spend two to three years in the ocean before returning as an adult puffin bird, searching for a mate. Puffins are known to enjoy a lengthy lifespan, often surpassing two decades in duration.
6. They are endangered
Among 3 puffin bird species, only the Atlantic species is listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. The other 3 species are categorized as Least Concern. However, only the population of the tufted puffin bird is stable, the numbers of horned species and Rhinoceros Auklet is decreasing.
Puffin colonies face a significant danger from overfishing, which depletes their food supply and leads to inadequate nourishment for adults to provide for their offspring. Furthermore, oil spills impair the puffins’ natural waterproofing abilities and result in illness when the birds try to remove the oil from their feathers.
Moreover, the impact of global warming on puffin birds is adverse, primarily due to their adaptation to colder waters and dependence on fish species accustomed to comparable temperatures. The rising sea levels resulting from global warming further endanger their breeding habitats by increasing the risk of flooding.