Atlantic Puffin

Fratercula arctica

(c) Daniel Minicucci
  • ALCIDAE
  • Auks, Murres, Puffins, Guillemots
  • Charadriiformes
  • Frailecillo
  • Macareux moine
Introduction
Atlantic Puffins inhabit rocky islands in the North Atlantic, strutting about their breeding colonies, circling the islands with rapid wingbeats, diving up to 200 feet underwater to capture small fish, or simply bobbing around in nearby waters. With its black-and-white "tuxedo," upright posture, comical behavior, and large, multicolored bill, this smallest of puffins, called the "clown of the sea," universally delights birders and tourists alike.
Appearance Description
Atlantic Puffins weigh about 13 ounces (380 grams), and measure about 12.5 inches in length, with a wingspan of 21 inches. Sexes look similar, with a stocky, rounded body; black back, collar, and underwings; white breast and face; orange legs; and a large colorful triangular bill. The bill, striped with varying shades and thicknesses of blue, yellow, and red-orange, is at its brightest during the breeding season.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Atlantic Puffins are found on open waters and small offshore islands from Maine to points north, and across the North Atlantic to Brittany. Worldwide, most Atlantic Puffins breed in Iceland. In North America, over half the population breeds in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Between breeding seasons, Atlantic Puffins head for the high seas and remain offshore.
 
Habitat
Atlantic Puffins are primarily pelagic except when breeding, favoring the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Most colonies breed on treeless rocky offshore islands where they can excavate nesting burrows, or nest under boulders.
Feeding
Atlantic Puffins, though somewhat awkward on land and in flight, are quite agile in the sea. During breeding season, they forage in shallow waters near breeding colonies. However, they can also dive 200 feet deep with  partly folded wings, "flying" underwater, with tail and feet spread to aid steering, as they pursue small schooling fish—predominantly capelin in Newfoundland, and herring and white hake in the Gulf of Maine. Atlantic Puffins can store multiple small fish crosswise in their bills as they swim, then fly to their burrows to deliver this food to their chicks. Adults consume their own food under water; this may include crustaceans, mollusks, and marine worms. However, data on adult puffin diets is scarce.
Reproduction
Atlantic Puffins may live to be more than 30 years old; they do not usually breed until they are at least 4 years old. Like other puffins, they migrate to breed on offshore islands, and nest within large mono- and multi-species seabird colonies. Courtship begins shortly after the puffins arrive, and includes billing and displaying with nest materials. Mating occurs on the water. The birds are primarily monogamous. They lay a single white egg with faint lilac markings, in a nest lined with grass and feathers at the end of their underground burrow, which may be up to 8 feet long. In the Gulf of Maine, nearly all puffins nest in deep rock crevices. Both sexes dig the burrow, incubate eggs, and care for the young, raising one chick per pair per year. The chick, or puffling, hatches after about 40 days and feeds on fish delivered by the parents. Pufflings fledge about 6 weeks after hatching, and fly or swim off to sea, usually at night. By dawn, they are seldom seen near nesting islands. The nocturnal fledging reduces the risk of predation by gulls.
Migration
Juvenile Atlantic Puffins migrate long distances after fledging, and do not return to coastal breeding areas for several years. Where they go in the interim is not well known. After the breeding season, adults migrate south of sea ice areas, spending winters far offshore, where they are seldom seen. Their springtime arrival at breeding colonies in groups suggests that migration occurs in flocks.
  • 5,850,000
  • 1,132,500
  • no current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
North American puffin populations have, since the early 1900s, rebounded from near devastation, and are currently growing. The large colonies in Witless Bay, Newfoundland remain stable. In the Gulf of Maine, populations have steadily increased at Machias Seal Island, Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Eastern Egg Rock, Seal Island NWR, and Matinicus Rock.
Conservation Issues

Atlantic Puffin populations drastically declined due to habitat destruction and exploitation for eggs, feathers, and meat during the 1800s and early 1900s. By 1901, all Maine colonies were virtually extirpated. Today, nearly all North American puffins nest in protected sanctuaries, where hunting is prohibited and puffin watching boat tours are popular attractions. Several historic populations in Maine have been restored as a result of the work of the National Audubon Society's Project Puffin

 At sea in winter, puffins are vulnerable to depleted fish stocks and oil spills. In 1978, the Amoco Cadiz, the largest oil spill in history, killed about 1,400 Atlantic Puffins near Brittany, France. Another threat to puffins is human disturbance during breeding, which causes egg or chick abandonment. Predators such as Norway rats, escaped mink from mink-farms, and Herring and Great Black-backed gulls, have all caused puffin colony declines. Where predators are discouraged, puffin populations have increased.
 

In Newfoundland and Norway, over-fishing of herring and capelin has affected puffin populations. In Norway, herring depletion caused the Rost Island colony to fall from 119,700 to 43,160 puffins within a decade.

 

Ironically, over-fishing can benefit puffins. Prior to the 1990s, many puffins drowned in surface nets set for Atlantic salmon in Newfoundland; the collapse of commercial fisheries there ended this associated bycatch. If salmon and cod fisheries reopen in Newfoundland, "no fishing" zones around large puffin colonies would offer valuable protection. Small puffin colonies at the periphery of their range require resident stewards to discourage mammalian and avian predators, and reduce human disturbance. Other recommendations include long-term monitoring of key colonies, and further research on the puffins winter-at-sea life.

What You Can Do
Don't dump garbage or fishing bait off boats; this feeds competing gulls.
 
Join beach cleanups in your area. Properly discarding of debris, particularly plastic, will prevent puffins and other seabirds from eating it.
 
Don't discard used oil into city sewers or municipal water supplies. It can end up in the ocean where puffins rest and feed; if their feathers become oiled, the birds are no longer waterproof and cannot survive.
 
Never let balloons drift off; puffins can become entangled in the strings, and marine mammals can mistake the balloons for food.
 
Don't disturb nesting puffin colonies when hiking or boating; prevent dogs and children from disturbing them.
 
Make environmentally-friendly seafood choices, which helps protect fish that Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds depend upon.
 
Support Audubon's Project Puffin by taking a puffin tour in Maine; volunteer, and support Project Puffin by adopting a puffin or making a contribution. To learn more, visit: www.projectpuffin.org
 
Attend a week-long session at the Audubon Camp in Maine on Hog Island and learn about puffins and the Maine coast ecosystem. Visit: www.maineaudubon.org
 
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Learn more about Atlantic Puffins and their successful restoration on the Maine Coast at www.projectpuffin.org
 
Learn about ocean conservation at http://www.livingoceans.org/
 
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Lowther, P. E., A. W. Diamond, S. W. Kress, G. J. Robertson, and K. Russell. 2002. Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). In The Birds of North America, No. 709 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). In The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996
Conservation Status References
Lowther, P. E., A. W. Diamond, S. W. Kress, G. J. Robertson, and K. Russell. 2002. Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). In The Birds of North America, No. 709 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). In The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996