There are three species of puffins in the world, all confined to the northern hemisphere: Atlantic Puffin, Horned Puffin and Tufted Puffin. Currently, allpuffins all belong to the genus Fratercula, which is Latin for “little brother”. It is worth noting that a fourth species, Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata), is very closely related to the puffins and has at times, been included in the genus, Fratercula. Puffins are alcids – truly pelagic seabirds that feed by diving from the ocean surface and capturing small fish and zooplankton. Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) breed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in large colonies, but the Tufted (Fratercula cirrhata) and Horned Puffins (Fratercula corniculata) are unique to the northern Pacific Ocean on both sides of the Bering Strait. These two species are the main focus of this article, though information is presented about Atlantic Puffins too. Rhinoceros Auklet is also confined to the Pacific Ocean, but has more widespread breeding and wintering ranges.
Generally, puffins are stubby, chunky little birds that are black above and either clean white below (Atlantic and Horned) or black on the belly (Tufted). Identifying puffins in the field is not really tricky. If Atlantic and Horned Puffins co-occurred anywhere, telling them apart would be potentially thorny, but thus far, those two species have never been confirmed at any site. Telling Horned and Tufted Puffins apart is fairly easy: Tufted Puffins are dark bellied as adults, have a heavier, longer bill with a lot of orange on it, and of course, the blonde tufts for which they are named.
Horned Puffins have a larger white cheek patch, bright orange and yellow bill with yellow gape, and the eponymous dark, fleshy “horn” that rises above the eye. They also have a curved black line extending backward behind the eye. Adult male and female puffins are indistinguishable in the field. Juveniles present possible challenges to ID, but these are not too hard as these things go. Juvenile Horned Puffins have dingy grayish cheeks and black upper parts with bright white chests and bellies. Their gray bill has yellowish tone, and though heavy, is shallower than that of a juvenile Tufted Puffin. Juvenile Tufted Puffins are similarly dingy gray about the face, but have a deeper bill that is distinctly dull orange; they are gray on the upper chest fading to whitish on the belly. It’s worth noting that the demarcation between white and black on a juvenile Horned Puffin is very sharp, while that of the Tufted Puffin is considerably less distinct.
All puffins nest colonially, usually on islands or remote cliff sites. Tufted and Atlantic Puffins dig burrows in soft soil, extending roughly a meter beneath the surface, and lined with grass, feathers, leaves and other materials. By contrast, Horned Puffins construct their nests in rocky cliff-side crevices. Because nest site availability is a major factor in limiting puffin numbers, the stiff competition for nest sites makes the birds defend their nests quite aggressively. All puffins pair in long-term relationships. They lay single eggs and the pair alternates in the feeding and incubating chores, holding the egg against a brood patch with their wings. Puffin chicks fledge at night, probably as a measure against predation; once on the water, they dive for safety. Chicks spend the first few years of their lives at sea, usually returning for their first breeding season at about 5 years of age.
Puffins winter out to sea after the breeding season is over. Atlantic Puffins may appear as far south as the waters off southern Virginia. Horned Puffins are most restricted in their movements, seldom venturing further south than the waters off northern British Columbia. By contrast, Tufted Puffins winter as far south as Morro Bay, off the coast of southern California, though typically well offshore. As noted above, puffins are primarily piscivorous, feeding on species of smelt and sand eel, herring and capelin – all small species of forage fish. Due to a unique construction in the hinge of their bill that allows the edges of the bill to apply pressure evenly at many different angles, puffins can catch and hold multiple fish on a single feeding run. This permits them to take longer foraging trips since they come back with more food per trip, and it also means they feed their chicks fresh fish that they’ve not regurgitated – that definitely sounds more appealing! They also look so smug and proud of that bill full of fish each time.
It is unclear what the future holds for these two charming alcids. Both have a somewhat limited range, and they have the misfortune of living in the arctic, the region of the earth that is experiencing more dramatic and rapid upheaval due to climate change than any. At this point, there is no way to predict how these changes will impact the bird life of the region, though the chances are high that it won’t be doing them any good. We can only hope that these puffins are more hardy and adaptable than they seem.