Puffin Facts | Alaska Wildlife Guide
Physical CharacteristicsThe most notable feature of the puffin is their large, brightly-colored bill. Early sailors referred to them as “sea parrots” due to their triangularly shaped beak, stocky body, short wings, and reddish-orange feet.
Males and females look alike. Puffins are between 11.5 and 13.5 inches long with a wingspan of 21 to 24 inches. They have white underbellies and cheeks, with a black spread along their back, neck, and crown. In winter, the cheeks of a puffin appear a dusky gray, though their other plumage is relatively unchanged. Puffin beaks vary depending on the species. Atlantic puffins have bills that are a vivid orange color, with a yellow-bordered crescent of dark blue at its base. Both horned and tufted puffins have reddish-orange bills with a yellow base. A puffin’s beak size and color are affected by molting in late summer. A number of the bill’s horny plates will shed after the breeding season, revealing a smaller, duller beak.
Two species of puffin inhabit Alaska’s waters, namely the tufted puffin (Fratercula
HabitatIn the summertime, Atlantic puffins live among rocky bluffs in northern Europe and the North Atlantic. They spend the winter far at sea and are rarely seen from land until March. Tufted and horned puffins can be found in the North Pacific, primarily in Alaska, British Columbia, and Siberia.
BehaviorPuffins are a part of the Alcidae family, along with auklets, guillemots, murres, and murrelets. Alcids spend the majority of their lives on the open ocean, only frequenting land during the breeding season. Puffins live in colonies during the summer, breeding in May. Puffins in Alaska mate on islands and capes from southeastern Alaska’s Forrester Island to Cape Lisburne on the coast of the Chukchi Sea.
Puffins are nimble and able to stand and walk erect on their toes. However, puffins’ bodies are better suited for swimming underwater than they are for flying. These birds swim by utilizing their short, slick wings to agilely propel them through the water, steering with their webbed feet. In flight, they also use their feet to help change direction, though the puffin is a bit more unsteady. In order to become airborne, puffins run across the surface of the water for a long way, sometimes flying right through waves before they can take off. When taking off from land, they plunge off cliffs to reach the speeds needed to fly. Puffins will make low, purring sounds while flying.
Feeding HabitsPuffins flock together to feed, eating a diet of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and zooplankton. While catching fish, they dive into the water from the air, continuing their “flight” under the surface where they flap half-folded wings for propulsion and use their feet as underwater paddles. When fishing for their chicks, puffins catch and carry food in their large beaks. They can forage while holding a mouthful of small fish, sometimes carrying up to 30 fish at a time. Tufted puffins are known for their ability to slyly steal bait from fishermen.
BreedingDuring courtship, puffins copulate on the water. Puffins make their nests underground, similar to many other seabirds, by using their sharp claws and beak to dig into loose soil. The burrows are between two and four feet deep and are constructed on islands or bluffs. In areas with little soil, puffins will nest on rocky cliffs. Puffin pairs stay together throughout the breeding season, often sitting outside of their burrow. While nesting, the puffins will utter low groans and grunts.
A single, speckled white egg is laid between June and July, which is incubated between 42 and 47 days by both adults, who keep the egg warm by tucking it under one wing. Puffin chicks hatch from July to early August and will stay in their parents’ burrow for 40 to 55 days until they become fledglings. Parents take turns guarding and feeding tiny fish to the newborn chicks. At five days old, a chick is able to warm itself.
As autumn arrives, puffins leave the colony for their winter offshore. Fledglings navigate the open ocean and remain offshore during their first summer. At three years of age, the puffins are able to mate, though many do not do so until they turn four.
PredatorsPuffins are curious and docile animals. They are hunted by humans, cats, rats, foxes, great black-backed gulls, and dogs.
Conservation & ManagementThe puffin has played a role in the diet and clothing of the Aleut native people for centuries. Parkas were made out of tough puffin skins, with the sleek feathers worn inward for insulation. Puffins were eaten fresh, dry-smoked, and salted in brine. They were hunted with a net on a long rod, which was sprung upon the birds as they flew to their nests.
While there are still many puffins living in Alaska, their numbers are dropping due to fishing disturbances and oil spills. Puffins are particularly vulnerable to oil pollution due to their life at sea—during winter they molt and spend all their time on the water. The majority of nesting seabird colonies are protected by Federal and Alaska state laws. Permits are typically required to land ships on islands with nesting seabirds to avoid disturbing the puffins.