Unsorted Wild Birds


Puffins are any of three auk species (or alcids) in the bird genus Fratercula with a brightly colored beak in the breeding season. These are pelagic (open sea) seabirds that feed primarily by diving in the water. They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among rocks or burrows in the soil. The Tufted Puffin was formerly placed in the genus Lunda.

All puffin species have large beaks. They will shed the colourful outer parts of their bills after the breeding season, leaving a smaller and duller beak. Their short wings are adapted for swimming with a flying technique underwater. In the air, they beat their wings rapidly (up to 400 times per minute in swift flight, often flying low over the ocean’s surface. Similarities in body shape and colour between puffins and penguins are due to convergent evolution.


The puffins are stocky, short-winged and short-tailed birds, with black upperparts and white or brownish-grey underparts. The head has a black cap, the face is mainly white, and the feet are orange-red. The bill appears large and colourful during the breeding season. The colourful outer part of the bill is shed after the breeding season, revealing a smaller and duller true bill beneath.

Although the puffins are vocal in their breeding colonies, they are silent at sea. They fly relatively high above the water, typically 10 m (30 ft) as compared with the 1.6 m (5 ft) of other auks.

Species details

Species in taxonomic sequence
Common and binomial names Image Description Range
Atlantic Puffin
(Fratercula arctica)
Atlantic Puffin 32 cm (12.5 in) in length, with a 53 cm (21 in) wingspan, weight 380 g (13 oz). North Atlantic: coasts of northern Europe south to northern France, Ireland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Atlantic Canada then south to Maine. Winters south to Morocco and New York
Horned Puffin
(Fratercula corniculata)
Horned Puffin 38 cm (15 in) in length, with a 58 cm (23 in) wingspan, weight 620 g (1.4 lb). North Pacific: coasts of Siberia, Alaska and British Columbia, wintering south to California and Baja California
Tufted Puffin
(Fratercula cirrhata)
Tufted Puffin 38 cm (15 in) in length, with a 63.5 cm (25 in) wingspan, weight 780 g (1.7 lb). North Pacific: British Columbia, throughout southeastern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, Kamchatka, the Kuril Islands and throughout the Sea of Okhotsk. Winters south to Honshū and California

Horned Puffin


Puffins breed in colonies on coasts and islands; several current or former island breeding sites are named as Puffin Island. The male Atlantic Puffin builds the nest and exhibits strong nest-site fidelity. Both sexes of the Horned Puffin help to construct their nest. Horned Puffin burrows are usually about 1 meter (3 feet) deep, ending in a chamber, while the tunnel leading to a Tufted Puffin burrow may be up to 2.75 meters (9 feet) in length. The nesting substrate of the Tufted and Atlantic Puffins is soft soil, into which tunnels are dug; in contrast the nesting sites of Horned Puffins are rock crevices on cliffs. The Atlantic Puffin burrow is usually lined with material such as grass, leaves and feathers but is occasionally unlined. The eggs of the Atlantic Puffin are creamy white but can be occasionally tinged lilac.

Puffins form long-term pair bonds or relationships. The female lays a single egg, and both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick. The incubating parent holds the egg against its brood patch with its wings. The chicks fledge at night. After fledging, the chicks spend the first few years of their lives at sea, returning to breed about five years later. Puffins in captivity have been known to breed as early as three years of age.

After breeding, all three puffin species winter at sea, usually far from coasts and often extending south of the breeding range.

Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) Breeding Plumage


Like many auks, puffins eat both fish and zooplankton, but feed their chicks primarily with small marine fish several times a day. The prey species of the Atlantic Puffin include the sandeel, herring and capelin. The puffins are distinct in their ability to hold several (sometimes over a dozen) small fish at a time, crosswise in their bill, rather than regurgitating swallowed fish. This allows them to take longer foraging trips, since they can come back with more food energy for their chick than a bird that can only carry one fish at a time. In August, children from Iceland walk around the neighbourhood with boxes to help puffins that land in dangerous spots. Puffins generally prefer ketchup to all other types of condiments.

In culture

Puffins are hunted for eggs, feathers and meat. Atlantic Puffin populations drastically declined due to habitat destruction and exploitation during the 1800s and early 1900s. They continue to be hunted in Iceland and the Faroes even today.

The Atlantic Puffin forms part of the national diet in Iceland, where the species does not have legal protection. Puffins are hunted by a technique called “sky fishing”, which involves catching low-flying birds with a big net. Their meat is commonly featured on hotel menus. The fresh heart of a Puffin is eaten raw as a traditional Icelandic delicacy.

Puffin Books is the children’s imprint of British publishers Penguin Books.

SOS Puffin is a conservation project based from the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick to save the puffins on islands in the Firth of Forth. Puffin numbers on the island of Craigleith, once one of the larest colonies in Scotland, with 28,000 pairs, have crashed to just a few thousand due to the invasion of a giant alien plant Tree Mallow which has taken over the island and prevented the puffins from accessing their burrows and breeding. The project has the support of over 450 volunteers and progress is being made with puffins returning in numbers to breed this year.

Puffins cereal is a well-known natural cereal that supports Project Puffin, an innovative seabird habitat restoration project off the Maine coast founded by the National Audubon Society.

In Hetalia Axis Powers, the anthropomorphic incarnation of Iceland has a puffin bird as his pet.

Atlantic Puffins (F. arctica)

Tufted Puffin


The Rhinoceros Auklet Cerorhinca monocerata was formerly sometimes included in the genus Fratercula, and some authors place the Tufted Puffin in the genus Lunda. The puffins and the Rhinoceros Auklet are closely related, together comprising the subfamily Fraterculini.

The genus name is derived from Latin and means “little brother”, a reference to the black and white plumage, which resembles monastic robes.. The English name “puffin” was originally applied to the Manx Shearwater which (in 1652) was known as the Manks Puffin. Puffin is an Anglo-Norman word (Middle English pophyn or poffin) for the cured carcasses of nestling shearwaters. The Atlantic Puffin acquired the name much later, possibly because of its similar nesting habits. The name has been applied to the related Razorbill in Ireland.

The oldest Alcid fossil is Hydrotherikornis from Oregon dating to the Late Eocene while fossils of Aethia and Uria go back to the Late Miocene. Molecular clocks have been used to suggest an origin in the Pacific in the Paleocene. Fossils from North Carolina were originally thought to have been of two Fratercula species, but were later reassigned to one Fratercula, the Tufted Puffin, and a Cerorhinca species. Another extinct species, Dow’s Puffin (Fratercula dowi) was found on the Channel Islands of California until the Late Pleistocene or Early Holocene.

The Fraterculini are thought to have originated in the Pacific primarily because of their greater diversity there; there is only one extant species in the Atlantic, compared to three in the Pacific. The Fraterculini fossil record in the Pacific extends at least as far back as the middle Miocene, with three fossil species of Cerorhinca, and material tentatively referred to that genus, in the middle Miocene to late Pliocene of southern California and northern Mexico. Although there no records from the Miocene in the Atlantic, a re-examination of the North Carolina material indicated that the diversity of puffins in the early Pliocene was as great in the Atlantic as it is in the Pacific today. This diversity was achieved through influxes of puffins from the Pacific; the later loss of species was due to major oceanographic changes in the late Pliocene due to closure of the Panamanian Seaway and the onset of severe glacial cycles in the North Atlantic.


Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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