I had a very exciting weekend: I saw puffins!
Some friends and I went to Booth Bay in Maine for a puffin cruise. After about an hour of sailing into the bay, we saw them: Atlantic puffins. And let me tell you, they were so cute!
If you need further proof of a puffin’s cuteness, listen to where the word ‘puffin’ came from – it’s said that puffin comes from the word puff, which means swollen. This is a reference to how round baby puffins are!
Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) are one of four types of puffins. Atlantic puffins are the only species that live in the (surprise, surprise) Atlantic Ocean. Horned puffins and tufted puffins live on the other side of the world in the Pacific Ocean. The rhinoceros auklet also lives in the Pacific Ocean; although it does not have the puffin name, it is anatomically a type of puffin.
Atlantic puffins are sometimes called ‘sea parrots’ or ‘clowns of the ocean’ because of their brightly colored beaks. But their beaks aren’t always so colorful – they turn a drab gray color during the fall and the winter. The fact that their beaks turn colorful again in the spring (and the oncoming breeding season) suggests that Atlantic puffins may use their beaks to attract mates.
Small but fast
Part of what makes Atlantic puffins so cute is their size. They are only about a foot long and weigh just over a pound.
But don’t let their small size fool you – Atlantic puffins are surprisingly fast! They can flap their wings up to 400 times a minute while in the air, reaching speeds of 55 miles per hour.
But where Atlantic puffins really shine is in the water. Their dense feathers are covered with a wax coating to repel water. Using their wings to ‘fly’ through the water and webbed feet to steer, Atlantic puffins can reach depths of 200 feet under the ocean’s surface.
As they swim through the ocean, Atlantic puffins are on the lookout for dinner: small fish like herring or sand eels. While on average they’ll only have a mouthful of 10 fish at a time, the record has gotten up to 62 fish!
How exactly can puffins hunt more fish while carrying some in their beaks? Their beaks are jagged, which helps. Atlantic puffins also have special tongues. These tongues have a coarse section, which the puffin uses to hold onto fish and push them against a spiky patch in their mouth.
Atlantic puffins spend a large chunk of the year traveling the ocean by themselves. But when it’s spring and time to breed, they form large breeding colonies on the coasts and islands of the North Atlantic.
These birds are monogamous, so they mate with the same partner every year, often reuniting at the same burrow site they used the previous year. These burrows are cavities dug out of the ground by the bills of the parents-to-be. Once the burrow is made, the puffins will line their home with feathers or grass.
Atlantic puffins lay a single egg at a time, and the parents take turns incubating it. According to our tour guide, they will tuck their egg under their wing to keep it warm.
Once the egg hatches, the puffling (the official and adorable name for a baby puffin) is fed by both parents. This is where the ability to hold lots of fish in their beak is handy. Pufflings eat whole fish, so parents who can fit more fish in their beaks can bring home more food for their young at a time. And they need a lot of food – puffin parents may bring food for their puffling more than 100 times daily.
Where exactly do Atlantic puffins make these large breeding colonies? The go-to place for a nest is on steep, rocky cliff tops. As a result, most (around 60%) of Atlantic puffins make their summer home in Iceland. A sizable colony, however, has been relatively recently re-established off the coast of Maine.
This re-establishment has taken a lot of work. In the 1800s and early 1900s, Atlantic puffins were heavily hunted for their eggs, meat, and feathers. Eventually, they disappeared entirely from the United States.
But in the 1970s, Steve Kress of the National Audubon Society started working to reintroduce them back to our waters. Since Atlantic puffins return to breed at the place they are born, Kress had to take pufflings from other islands and raise them off the coast of Maine himself. Eventually, the population became stable, and adult, breeding puffins began returning to these islands. Today, there is a healthy colony of breeding Atlantic puffins on Egg Rock and other islands off the coast of Maine.
Birds besides Atlantic puffins have benefited from this restoration project, too. Many other bird species use Egg Rock as nesting grounds. And the techniques that worked so well in re-establishing puffin colonies have been used in 14 other countries to help at least 42 different seabird species.
Because, after all, if it’s our fault an animal is endangered, it’s up to us to help fix it.