Puffins (Fratercula arctica) are arguably the North Atlantic’s most iconic seabird, being the official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, featuring on stamps across the globe and lending their name to one of the largest publishers of children’s books in the world. Puffins are beloved for their comical appearance and quirky behaviour, being voted one of Britain’s favourite birds.
The puffin’s characteristically colourful bill is made up of nine distinct horny plates that only adorn its wearer during the breeding season, being shed in the winter months revealing a much smaller dull beak. Both males and females have these flashy ornaments and it is thought that both sexes might choose their mate based on how brightly coloured their beaks are, showing their health and indicating how good a mate they would be. It is because of their colourful beak, striking eye makeup, rotund stature and waddling gait that puffins look unusually comical, gaining them their nickname of the ‘clowns of the sea’. But this name does the puffin a bit of a disservice, while undeniably entertaining, they are tremendously hard working parents, highly adapted to their specialist lifestyle and not the bumbling fools their nickname would suggest.
Each breeding season, puffins return to the coast from a winter spent at sea. Unlike most seabirds that nest on cliff edges, puffins nest inside burrows on grassy cliff-tops, making their home inside old rabbit warrens or excavating their own if no ready-made burrows exist. There, just one egg is laid, and the mammoth task of bringing up a baby puffin, adorably known as a ‘puffling’, begins.
After 40 days of incubation, with both the male and female taking 32 hour shifts to keep their precious egg warm, the hungry puffling will hatch and require the undivided attention of both its parents for a further 44 days. You might think that two adults feeding one chick would be a piece of cake, but food is hard to come by in the open ocean, and the parent puffins must fly 50-100km to reach fishing grounds rich in their favourite food, sand eels.
Like many seabirds, puffins are more at home out in the open ocean then on the cliff tops where we usually see them. Their likeness to penguins is no mistake, these birds are adept swimmers, using their short stiff wings to dive to depths of up to 60 metres. If Nelson’s Column was inverted and plunged underwater, they would easily be able to fetch his hat. Not bad for a bird that only stands 25 cm tall! Puffins are famed for their ability to catch and carry multiple fish at the same time. Their beaks are equipped with backwards pointing barbs, allowing them to carry around 20+ sand eels back to their chick in one mouthful.
If flying 50 km to catch a mouthful of sand eels and carrying them all the way back home again, six times a day, didn’t sound hard enough, puffins still have one last gauntlet to face. Puffin colonies are plagued by pirates. Not of the Blackbeard or Captain Jack variety, but gulls. These wily opportunists watch out for the exhausted puffins loaded down with fishy booty, ready to make chase and attempt to snatch an easy meal straight out of the puffin’s mouth.
Once the puffling is old enough, around 40 days and 48,000 km of flying after hatching, the parents simply stop coming back to feed their chick. Hunger soon drives the puffling to leave its burrow and set off on its own journey out to sea. If it manages to survive, the puffling will one day return to the cliff-tops as an adult, ready take on the difficult task of raising its own young.
They may look the part, but these little auks aren’t clowning around! While enjoying their clown make-up and amusing antics, just remember the incredible feats these pint-size hard-workers achieve every day!