Puffins arrive in Uyak Bay in May, and it is a welcome sign of spring to sight the first one. These colorful, almost comical birds are members of the family alcidae, which includes guillemots, auks, auklets, murres, and murrelets. We have both horned and tufted puffins here. The two species sport different head gear, but the most obvious difference between them is that horned puffins have a white breast and a black back, while tufted puffins have a black breast and back. Both species have large, colorful bills. Horned puffins have a small, fleshy dark “horn” above each eye, while tufted puffins have tufts of long feathers on either side of the head. Both males and females have the same markings. One of the most interesting things about puffins is that they shed the outer layers of their bills in the late summer, and their plumage fades to a dusky gray. In late May, we see colorful parrot-like birds, but by early September, their somber plumage and plain bill make them appear to be a totally different species.
In this part of Alaska, puffins arrive at their breeding colonies in May. It is believed that breeding pairs mate for life or at least for a prolonged period of time. They strengthen their bonds during a courtship ceremony that take place in the water. The male lifts his bill straight up and opens and closes his mouth and jerks his head, while the female hunches over and pulls her head and neck close to her body. Next, the two birds face each other, waggle their heads and touch bills repeatedly while opening and closing their mouths.
Puffins prefer to nest underground. They have sharp claws on the toes of their feet, and they are able to scratch out a burrow three to four feet deep into a steep hillside. They use the same burrow every year, and they clean and may even lengthen the burrow each year. At rocky sites with very little or no soil, puffins nest on slopes or cliff faces. Females lay a single whitish-colored egg that is incubated for 42–47 days by both parents. The egg hatches in July, and the parents take turns feeding the chick for the next 45 days.
After the first five days, the chick can keep itself warm, allowing both parents to leave the nest to gather food. The adults catch small fish such as herring, capelin, and sand lance to feed themselves and their chick. They have a raspy tongue that holds each fish against a double row of backward-facing spines on the roof of the mouth, and they often carry as many as ten small fish at a time when they return to the nest. As soon as the chick fledges, the adults leave for the winter. They shed their beaks and head to the open ocean, where they spend the winter feeding. Young puffins will remain at sea until they are two years old, and then they return to the nesting colony for the summer. They are sexually mature at age three.
I can’t help but laugh when I watch a puffin fly, because with their chubby, round bodies, they are poorly built for flight, and they are actually much better at swimming than flying. When a puffin takes off to fly, it appears to run on the water, furiously flapping its wings until it gains a few feet of altitude. Then it flies for a short distance and splashes back into the water. Landing on a cliff is a tricky maneuver for a puffin, and crash landings are not uncommon.
Seeing a brightly-colored puffin in May is a sign to me that spring has arrived, and catching a glimpse of that same drab-colored bird in September is a reminder that winter is on its way.