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Puffin Biology

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

Last week, I posted about the two species of puffins we see in Alaska. These are the horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata).  This week I’ll describe puffin nesting behavior and other facts about these interesting birds.

 On Kodiak, puffins arrive at their breeding colonies in May. Breeding colonies are usually on cliffs along the shoreline or on small islands. The steep nesting areas not only help protect puffins from predators but provide a good take-off perch for these heavy birds with small wings. Horned and tufted puffins may nest in the same colony, and they sometimes also share nesting grounds with other alcids, and with glaucous gulls, glaucous-winged gulls, kittiwakes, and cormorants.

Puffins are monogamous and form pair bonds that last many years. Courtship takes place soon after they arrive at their breeding grounds. Mates sit on the water, and the male lifts his bill straight up while opening and closing his mouth and jerking his head. The female hunches over close to the water while keeping her head and neck close to her body. Then, the two birds face each other, waggle their heads and repeatedly touch bills while opening and closing their mouths.

Horned Puffin
Horned Puffin

Puffins nest underground. They have sharp claws on the toes of their webbed feet that they use to scratch out deep burrows, measuring three to four feet (1 m), into the steep hillside. At rocky sites with little soil, puffins nest in rock crevices or on cliff faces. Puffins may line their nests with grass, twigs, feathers, or even manmade materials. Mates often use the same nest year after year and may lengthen the nest each season. A female lays only a single whitish-colored egg, and the male and female take turns incubating the egg for 42 to 47 days. The parents put all their energy into this one offspring, and because of this, the success rate is high for a puffin chick to survive until it fledges. In a study, biologists determined 65% of the tufted chicks and 60% of the horned chicks in the study group survived until they left the nest.]

The chick hatches in July or early August. At birth, it is covered with down and its eyes are open. Parents take turns booding the chick until it can maintain a body temperature of 103.1⁰ F (39.5⁰ C); this usually takes six days. The chick remains in the burrow for the next 45 to 55 days, while the parents take turns watching and feeding it. The parents feed the nestling by catching small fish in their bills and dropping them on the ground in the nest or near the entrance of the burrow. When it is weaned, the chick leaves the nest between dusk and dawn to avoid predators. It cannot fly well at this point, so it either walks or flutters to the ocean where it remains. The parents do not accompany the chick, but they also leave the nest around this time. Young puffins head to the open ocean and remain there through their first summer. When they are two-years-old, they visit the colony during the summer. They are old enough to breed when they are three, but they are not certain to breed until they are four-years-old.

Not much is known about the lifespan of Pacific puffins, but they are believed to live 15 to 20 years in the wild. Tufted puffins have been known to live 25 years in captivity, while an Atlantic puffin survived 39 years in captivity.

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

With its heavy body, short wings, and webbed feet, a puffin is built more for swimming than for flying. A tufted puffin is the size of a crow but weighs twice as much and has short stubby wings. It must beat its wings 400 times per minute just to stay aloft. Not only is it difficult for a puffin to take off from the water and gain altitude, but it lacks maneuverability in the air, and crash landings and mid-air collisions between puffins are not uncommon. When a puffin takes off from the water, it usually remains close to the surface for a ways and may even hit the water with its wings and bounce off the waves to gain altitude. When flying, a puffin uses its feet to change direction. A puffin is much more graceful in the water, and when swimming, it uses its wings for propulsion and its feet for steering. On land, puffins walk in an upright position, using their claws to cling to slippery rocks and rough terrain.

Fights between puffins are common and occur when one puffin perceives another is invading its territory. The resident puffin threatens the intruder with an open bill that exposes its brightly colored mouth lining. It also shakes its head, jerks its head upward and back, and rocks its body from side to side.

Puffins feed in small flocks and can dive as deep as 262.4 ft. (80 m) to catch their prey. They feed on lipid-rich fish such as sand lance, capelin, and herring, and they also eat euphausiids (krill). When catching fish to take back to the nest, a puffin can carry a large number of fish crosswise in its bill with the heads and tails dangling from the sides of its mouth. It can hold several fish in its mouth and continue to catch more fish without losing any of them due to spines on its tongue and on the roof of its mouth that act as hooks to hold onto the prey.

Horned Puffin
Horned Puffin

Surveys in Prince William Sound suggest the horned puffin population in that area declined 79% from 1972 to 1998. Biologists believe this decline in numbers is due to major changes in the food base as a result of global warming.  This fall, the bodies of 217 dead tufted puffins have been recovered on St. Paul Islands in the Pribilofs, and biologists have determined that the puffins starved to death. Their deaths, like the earlier deaths of horned puffins in Prince William Sound, were blamed on a shortage of food linked to higher-than-normal ocean temperatures in the Bering Sea.  Biologists believe thousands of tufted puffins may die in this region this winter.

Puffins need a predator-free nesting area and an abundance of food. They are subject to predation by foxes, river otters, rats, eagles and other birds of prey. Ravens may attack nesting chicks. When traveling from the winter feeding area to their nesting grounds, puffins fly in large groups in a pattern that resembles a wheel, making it difficult for an eagle to attack an individual bird. Puffins are susceptible to oil pollution. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, 162 dead horned puffins and 570 dead tufted puffins were retrieved from the oiled waters, but biologists believe several thousand puffins were killed by the spill. Puffins are also often caught as bycatch by gillnet and driftnet fisheries.





Horned and Tufted Puffins in Alaska


Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

Two species of puffins live in Alaskan waters. The horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) belong to the family Alcidae, which also includes guillemots, murres, murrelets, auklets, and auks.

There is no sexual dimorphism between male and female puffins; both sexes are the same color and size. They have stout bodies, short wings, and orange, webbed feet which are located far back on their bodies. From a distance in the spring and summer, the most obvious difference between the two species is that horned puffins have white breasts, while tufted puffins have black breasts and bodies. A horned puffin has a black back and neck and is white on the sides of the head and the breast. Its bright-yellow, oversized beak has a red tip. Its common name is derived from the small, fleshy, dark horn above each eye that is present in the spring and summer. Horned puffins resemble Atlantic (or common) puffins, to which they are closely related, but horned puffins are larger than Atlantic puffins, have slightly different-colored beaks, and have horns, which are lacking in Atlantic puffins. In addition to its black body, a tufted puffin has a white face and a red and yellow bill. Its common name is derived from the long tufts of yellow feathers that curl back from behind the eye on each side of the head. Both adult horned and tufted puffins are about 14 inches (36 cm) long, but tufted puffins are heavier, weighing 1.7 lbs. (771 g), while horned puffins weigh approximately 1.4 lbs. (635 g).

Horned Puffin
Horned Puffin

At the end of the summer, after adults leave their nests, their plumage fades. The white face patches become smoky-brown in front and silver-gray in back, and the body of the horned puffin fades to blackish-gray above and brownish-gray below, while the body of the tufted puffin fades to a dusky gray. The bills of both species fade and the outer plate sheds, leaving them with a much smaller, duller bill. Their feet fade to a fleshy color, and horned puffins shed their horns, while tufted puffins shed their tufts. In the winter, when puffins are on their wintering grounds offshore in the North Pacific, they undergo a complete molt and are flightless for a period.

Puffins are well-suited to life in the ocean. Their feathers are waterproof, and their short, stiff wings are built more for swimming than for flying. They have strong bones to help them withstand the increased pressure of underwater dives; they can store oxygen in their body tissues, and they use anaerobic respiration to allow them to make long dives.

Tufted puffins nest on the coast and offshore islands from lower California to Alaska and from Japan to the shores of northeastern Asia. In Alaska, tufted puffins nest from Southeast Alaska to the Chukchi Sea coast. Horned puffins range from British Columbia to Alaska and southwest to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Kuril Islands. Their range in Alaska is similar to that of tufted puffins, but horned puffins are more abundant than tufted puffins in the northern part of their ranges.

Puffins are not easy to count because they nest in rock crevices or burrows where they can’t be seen. Also, a few puffin pairs often nest on rookeries dominated by other species, so an observer would have to watch each bird rookery for a long time to know if there were any puffins on the rookery. Population statistics are rough estimates and should not be considered exact counts. The world estimate for horned puffins is 1,088,500 individuals with greater than 85% nesting in North America. It is estimated that there are 608 breeding colonies in Alaska with a population of 921,000 individuals. The world population estimate for tufted puffins is 2,970,000 individuals with greater than 80% nesting in North America. It is estimated that there are 693 breeding colonies for tufted puffins in Alaska with a population of 2,280,000 individuals.

In next week’s post, I will describe puffin mating and nesting behaviors as well as detail  more about their biology.  As our days here on Kodiak steadily shorten, and we brace for what seems like one winter storm after the next, I enjoy writing about and looking at photos of puffins because they, more than any other bird, make me think of warm summer days.

I hope you are staying warm out there.  If you want something to read, sign up for my Free Mystery Newsletter and read about true crime in Alaska.  This month I am profiling another serial killer who recently roamed the streets of Anchorage.



Tufted Puffin in Uyak Bay, Kodiak Island

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.