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).
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.