Breeding in large colonies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the Atlantic Puffin once faced threats from egg collectors and commercial hunters. It is more abundant once again thanks to protection and restoration efforts. Atlantic Puffins do not reach breeding age until they are three-to-six years old, but they can live to be over 30 years old.
Atlantic Puffins propel themselves underwater with their wings. A typical dive lasts about half a minute and may reach a depth of about 20 meters. Roosting takes place on the water. A number of avian predators have been known to take puffins, including Peregrine Falcons, large gulls, and several species of hawks and owls.
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Description of the Atlantic Puffin
A distinctive species of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada.
Length 13 in. Wingspan: 21 in.
- Very large, colorful bill
- Black crown, throat, and back
- White breast, belly, and undertail coverts
- Red legs and feet
- Short wings
“The puffin is a curious mixture of the solemn and the comical. Its short stocky form and abbreviated neck, ornamented with a black collar, its serious owl-like face and extraordinarily large and brilliantly colored bill, suggestive of the false nose of a masquerader, its vivid orange red feet and legs all combine to produce such a grotesque effect that one is brought almost to laughter on seeing these birds walking about near at hand. The parrot like appearance of the bill has earned the name of “parroquet,” or “sea parrot,” by which it is known in Labrador and Newfoundland.” From Bent.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter birds are somewhat duller with duller bill.
Similar to adults but grayer face.
Nests on rocky islands and coasts in northeastern United States and eastern Canada.
Winter range not well understand but pelagic in nature.
Dives for food from the water’s surface. Special adaptations allow the puffin to catch and hold several fish at one time.
Summer range limited to rocky islands and coasts in northeastern United States and eastern Canada.
Winter range not well understand but pelagic in nature.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Atlantic Puffin.
Atlantic Puffin’s may live to be more than 30 years old.
Breeding does not occur until the puffins are from 3-5 years old.
Mostly silent, makes a growling sound in the nesting burrow.
The only puffin within its range, the Atlantic Puffin is easy to identify and not likely to be confused with other species.
The puffin is a social bird and nests in colonies. One of the largest breeding colonies remaining at the present time is on Parroquet Island off the southern coast of Labrador near Bradore. Here the birds burrow into the friable soil and utilize crannies among the rocks for their nests. Of a similar, but smaller, colony at Bald Island off the middle of the southern coast of Labrador, I have made a more intimate study. Here in June, 1909, we found about 150 pairs breeding. The island is formed of limestone with a flat surface of several acres of loose, dark soil on which stood and lay a forest of dead stalks of the cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum). The new leaves were just beginning to push up from the ground at the time of our visit on the 8th and 9th of June. In this loose soil, but chiefly under the large fragments of rocks that were partly embedded in the surface, were the nesting burrows of the puffins. Most of these nests in the burrows under the large rocks were just beyond the reach of the arm, extended to full length in the hole, but a few were accessible, as their length was little more than 2 feet. The holes in the loose soil were generally about 30 inches long, often curved and descending at a slight angle to a few inches or a foot below the surface. Frazar (1887) says of the burrows at Wolf Island, southern Labrador, that:
Number: one or two
Color: The egg is rounded ovate in shape, and generally a dull white when first laid, but it soon becomes soiled. A few eggs are spotted with concealed chocolate markings, while some have distiuct spots and blotches.
Bent Life History of the Atlantic Puffin
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Atlantic Puffin – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
FRATERCULA ARCTICA ARCTICA (Linnaeus)
HABITSContributed by Charles Wendell Townsend
The puffin is a curious mixture of the solemn and the comical. Its short stocky form and abbreviated neck, ornamented with a black collar, its serious owl-like face and extraordinarily large and brilliantly colored bill, suggestive of the false nose of a masquerader, its vivid orange red feet and legs all combine to produce such a grotesque effect that one is brought almost to laughter on seeing these birds walking about near at hand. The parrot like appearance of the bill has earned the name of “parroquet,” or “sea parrot,” by which it is known in Labrador and Newfoundland. Besides being grotesque it is singularly confiding or stupid, and it is this, it seems to me, that is leading rapidly but surely to its downfall and final extinction, unless refuges are created and respected where it can breed undisturbed. At the present time the most southerly breeding station is Matinicus Rock off the middle coast of Maine. Here only two pairs are left. The only other breeding place left on the coast of the United States is at Machias Seal Island. Here in 1904, according to Dutcher (1904), there was a colony of 300 of these birds. It is probable that the coast of Maine was formerly the resort of large numbers of this species. According to Knight (1908) a few pairs probably bred on Seal Island not far from Matinicus as recently as 1888. Audubon (1840), who visited the Bay of Fundy in 1833, says it bred commonly on the islands in the bay “although not one perhaps now for a hundred that bred there 20 years ago.” Now, they are nearly if not entirely extirpated. Macoun (1909) gives only one breeding locality for Nova Scotia, namely, Seal Island, Yarmouth County; but it is probable that a century ago the coast swarmed with these interesting birds. Along the Newfoundland coast the puffin is still to be found breeding, but in much diminished numbers. At Bryon Island in the Magdalen group and at Bird Rock puffins still breed, as well as at Wreck Bay, Anticosti, and elsewhere on this island. On the Labrador coast their numbers are rapidly diminishing. The westernmost of the Mingan Islands where auks, murres, gannets, and puffins formerly bred in great numbers, and which bear the name of the Parroquet Islands, are now almost devoid of bird life. The gannets have ceased to nest there and the puffins are almost wiped out. In 1906 we saw no puffins near these islands, and in 1909 only two were to be seen. Near the eastern end of the Mingan group of islands is Bald Island. Here in 1906 we found about 150 pairs of puffins. At Wolf Island, near Cape Whittle, in 1884 Frazer found a colony of about a thousand puffins. Still farther to the east is the famous Parroquet Island near Bradore. Audubon (1840) visited this island in 1833. He says:
As we rowed toward it, although we found the water literally covered with thousands of these birds, the number that flew over and around the green island seemed much greater, In so much that one might have imagined half the puffins in the world had assembled there.
In 1906 Townsend and Allen (1907) passed near this island and say of these puffins:
There were at least 500 of them, perhaps many more.
In 1860 Coues (1861) thus describes the island at the mouth of Hamilton Inlet on the eastern Labrador coast:
The Parrakeet Islands are three in number, lying along the western shore of Esquimau Bay, just at its mouth. The one I visited Is the Innermost, as well as the largest, though the others are equally crammed with birds. It Is about a mile In circumference. As we rounded the Island close to the shore they came tumbling out of their holes by hundreds and, with the thousands we disturbed from the surface of the water, soon made a perfect cloud above and around us, no longer flying In flocks, but forming one dense continuous mass.
He also records them in numbers in the bay near Rigolet. Forty six years later, in 1906, Townsend and Allen saw only 13 puffins on a steamer trip from Battle Harbor to Nain, stopping at Rigolet, and only 43 on the return trip. Six years later, in 1912, Bent (1913) “did not see a single puffin north of the Straits.” He spent nearly two months between Battle Harbor and Cape Mugford. When shot at on their breeding grounds the survivors continue to fly by close at hand, offering the gunner tempting shots. Both Audubon and Coues seem to have yielded to this temptation and shot great numbers of puffins. What can be expected of the ignorant and ruthless? The story is everywhere the same: a rapid diminution in the numbers of this picturesque and interesting bird.
Courtship: I have watched groups of these birds off the southern coast of Labrador during the courtship season. They swim together in closely crowded ranks, rarely diving, for their thoughts are not on food. At frequent intervals individuals rise up in the water and flap their wings as if from nervousness. Again two males fight vigorously, flapping their wings meanwhile and making the water foam about them. Again two, possibly a pair, hold each other by the bills and move their heads and necks like billing doves. Now several are seen to throw their heads back with a jerk until the bill points up, and this is repeated a number of times. Edmund Selous (1905), who has watched this action near at hand in the puffins of the Shetlands, says the bill is opened wide but no sound is uttered. The brilliant lining of the month is therefore the result of sexual selection and it evidently forms a part of the courtship display.
Nesting: The puffin is a social bird and nests in colonies. One of the largest breeding colonies remaining at the present time is on Parroquet Island off the southern coast of Labrador near Bradore. Here the birds burrow into the friable soil and utilize crannies among the rocks for their nests. Of a similar, but smaller, colony at Bald Island off the middle of the southern coast of Labrador, I have made a more intimate study. Here in June, 1909, we found about 150 pairs breeding. The island is formed of limestone with a flat surface of several acres of loose, dark soil on which stood and lay a forest of dead stalks of the cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum~). The new leaves were just beginning to push up from the ground at the time of our visit on the 8th and 9th of June. In this loose soil, but chiefly under the large fragments of rocks that were partly embedded in the surface, were the nesting burrows of the puffins. Most of these nests in the burrows under the large rocks were just beyond the reach of the arm, extended to full length in the hole, but a few were accessible, as their length was little more than 2 feet. The holes in the loose soil were generally about 30 inches long, often curved and descending at a slight angle to a few inches or a foot below the surface. Frazar (1887) says of the burrows at Wolf Island, southern Labrador, that:
They are seldom over 4 feet deep and generally take an abrupt curve near the opening and run along usually near the surface of the ground. Several that I opened curved in such a way that the nest, which Is an enlarged cavity at the end of the burrow, with a little straw laid on the bottom, was exactly under the entrance and only a thin crust of soil between the two.
Sometimes several burrows communicate and a single one may have two openings. In walking over a field filled with the burrows of this bird, one is in constant danger of breaking through into the numerous tunnels. At the end of the burrow is the nest, a loose mass of dead grass, sometimes with a few feathers, in which rests the single egg. In exploring the holes with outstretched arm, we found that gloves were very necessary, as the enraged parent bird was capable of inflicting considerable damage to the unprotected fingers with her keen-edged and powerful bill, and, when seized, she could scratch vigorously with her sharp nails. The work of digging the holes falls chiefly on the male, and he is at times so intent upon this work as to suffer himself to be taken by the hand. The inner toenail on each foot is well adapted for the digging process, as it is strong, curved, and sharp, and the other toenails are but little inferior.
Eggs: Only one egg is laid, as a rule. Frazar (1887) found, in a colony of a thousand pairs at Cape Whittle, 12 burrows, each containing two eggs. The egg is rounded ovate in shape, and generally a dull white when first laid, but it soon becomes soiled. A few eggs are spotted with concealed chocolate markings, while some have distiuct spots and blotches. The measurements of 41 eggs, in the United States National Museum collection, average 63 by 44.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 67 by 47, 58 by 43, and 63 by 41.5 millimeters.
Young: Both sexes incubate, although the greater part of this work falls upon the females. Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1884) state that the period of incubation is 1 month. Audubon (1840) says it is probably from 25 to 28 days. Only one brood is raised in a season. When the young are 4 or 5 weeks old they are able to leave their burrows and follow their mothers to the sea. A large nesting colony such as that at Parroquet Island, near Bradore, Labrador, is a place of intense interest early in August, when the parents are busily engaged in filling the wants of the hungry young. The water all about the place is dotted with puffins; there are weird looking groups of the birds on the rocks and the air is filled with the birds returning with food and those going farther afield in quest of more. The returning birds all have capelin: often several: or other small fish hanging from their bills by the heads, and in the swift flight of the birds the fish trail out parallel to the bill. The young birds wait at the mouth of the burrow for the feast and are always clamorous for more. Fish appears to be the chief of their diet, although shrimps and other crustacea and mollusca may be added.
Plumages: [Author’s note: The young puffin is hatched in a coat of long, soft, thick down which covers the whole body; the central belly portion is white, sometimes tinged with yellowish or light gray; the remainder of the down, covering the upper parts, the throat and the crissum, is light “seal brown” with “drab’~ shadings; in some specimens the upper parts are “Prout’s brown~~ or “Vandyke brown.” The plumage appears first on the wings and then on the back and the last of the natal down disappears on the neck, rump, and flanks. This first winter plumage is somewhat like the winter plumage of the adult, glossy brownish black above and pure white below; but the loral and orbital regions are more extensively dusky than in the adult, and the bill is very small, weak, undeveloped and pointed. This plumage is worn all winter and apparently through the first spring, until the young bird becomes indistinguishable from the adult after the first postnuptial molt, a gradual development of the bill taking place during the spring and summer. The adult has only a limited prenuptial molt in the spring and a complete postnuptial molt in the late summer and fall. In the adult winter plumage the face, or the whole lower portion of the head above the black collar, is much darker gray than in the spring; whether the light gray, almost whitish, face of the nuptial plumage is produced by molting or only by fading I can not say. The most conspicuous seasonal change in the puffin is in the bill.
The bill of the puffin is in truth a mask, for it is large and brilliant only during the season of courtship, and is mostly cast off to be replaced by a smaller, duller one for common use the rest of the year. The bill is the same in the two sexes, and, at the height of the breeding season, is a brilliant scarlet with triangular patches of steel blue at the bases of both mandibles; about the middle of the upper mandible, on either side, is a narrow band of white. The commissure, bare of feathers, is a brilliant orange. The whole inside of the mouth and tongue is a light yellow. Nor is this all, for the eyes during the courtship season are provided with a narrow horizontal horny line below, and one running diagonally back above while the edge of the eyelids is a vivid vermillion. The eyes themselves are small and blue-black, and sparkle in the wonderful setting.
After the breeding season the puffin puts aside its mask by shedding the following pieces, according to Coues (1903);
1, Basal run or collar; 2, nasal case or saddle; 3, mandibular case or shoe; 4, 5, strips at base of mandible, one on each side; 6, 7, subnasal strips, one on each sIde; 8, 9, prenasal strips one on each side.
The horny appendages of the eyelids are also shed. The horny molt by which the whole bill becomes smaller takes place at the same time with the feather molt in August and September. The orange skin at the cominissure becomes pale and shrunken and the feet change from brilliant orange red to yellow.
Food: The food of the puffin is almost exclusively fish and on the Labrador Coast the capelin seems to be their favorite. Crustacean and other forms of marine life are doubtless also eaten.
Behavior: Puffins are as a rule unsuspicious and generally allow a close approach. As one approaches in a steamer or other boat, the swimming bird shows its anxiety by nervously dipping its head into the water from time to time. Then it is apt to show the greatest indecision as to which action to adopt: flight below the water or above. Both actions: aerial as well as subaqueous: can be described as flight, for the wings, although held somewhat differently, are as vigorously used below the water as in the air. In the former as in the latter case the feet are not used but trail behind. One can easily observe the beginning of the subaqueous flight, for the wings are flapped out for their first stroke as the bird enters the water. Unless the wind be strong against them, they have great difficulty in rising from the water, and often splash along the surface for some distance before they can rise above it. Many a time they give up the attempt and rest before trying again, but often continue the flight by dipping below the surface, without a pause in the process. I have often seen them emerge from a wave, fly across the trough and enter the next wave without apparent change in their method of propulsion. Again I have seen them come out of the water flying, only to plunge down into the water and continue the flight below the surface. On the surface they paddle along skilfully like little apoplectic short necked ducks and their small orange red legs are plainly nsib]e. Their diminutive tails are sometimes cocked up at an angle. The tails are spread as they dive.
On the land puffins walk with great dignity without resting the tarsus on the ground, although this at times is done. Although the tarsus is vertical, the body of the bird is sometimes as horizontal as a duck’s body, but at other times, as when anxious about the intentions of a human intruder, the neck and body are both stretched up.
The aerial flight of the puffin is rapid with swift beatings of the little wings, and with frequent swaying or turning from side to side, as is the case in all the Alcidae. Flocks wheel and turn together with the regularity of shore birds, now showing their black backs, now flashing out their white breasts and bellies. The similarity in these habits between these two groups is doubtless explained by their close relationship. Brewster (1883) thus describes the manner of the descent of the puffin from the high cliffs of Byron Island:
Launching into the air with head depressed and winds held stiffly at a sharp angle above their backs they would sboot down like meteors, checking their speed by an upward turn just before reaching the water.
In a strong wind puffins sometimes poise in the up currents on the edge of a hill or cliff as motionless as a hawk under similar circumstances. As they alight in the water their feet are spread out on either side with the toes wide apart, so that in the breeding season the orange red webs make a brilliant display. They alight with a splash and as a rule bend the head foreward so that it momentarily goes below the surface, but soon regain their balance and ride the water lightly like ducks.
The note of these birds as I have heard it in flight near its nesting place is a low purring note, a purr-ia]a-la. When struggling in the hand they utter harsh croaks. Boraston (1905) says:
As the bird flies, especially If returning to Its burrow with fish, It utters a peculiar sound: a deep-throated, mirthless laughter, as it ;vere, which may be imitated by laughing in the throat with the lips closed.
Edmund ‘Selous (1905) says:
The note of the puffin is very peculiar: sepulchrally deep, and full of the deepest feeling. Another note Is much more commonly heard, viz, a long, deep, slowly rising Awe, uttered in somethIng of a tone of solemn expostulatlon, as though the bird were In the pulpit.
Audubon (1840) compares the cries of the young to the “wailing of young whelps.” Chapman speaks of a captive bird with a ‘ hoarse voice, half grunt, half groan,” and some of the birds that Audubon kept on board his vessel on the Labrador were “fed freely and were agreeable pets oniy that they emitted an unpleasant grunting noise, and ran about incessantly during the night, when each footstep could be counted.”
Their relations with other species are at times playful or warlike, depending on the point of view. Thus I once watched a puffin chase three black guilleinots by repeatedly diving and swimming under water toward them while they followed the same tactics in eluding the pursuit. At last all four came to the surface near together, the ardor of the chase evaporated, and they all seemed unconscious of each other’s presence.
Winter: The full migration of the puffin along the New England coast takes place in October or later. During the winter they frequent by preference the waters off rocky headlands, like Cape Ann or Marblehead, and may best be observed at such places, or in winter steamboat trips along the coast. Their food habits at this season are much the same as in more northern ~vaters already described.
Breeding range: Coasts and islands of the North Atlantic. Formerly from Maine and the Bay of Fundy, Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Labrador north to southern Greenland. Now restricted on the coast of Maine to Matinicus Rock and Machias Seal Island; and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Bryon Island, Bird Rock, Anticosti, Bald Island, and Bradore. Probably extirpated from the remainder of the above range south of northern Labrador. Some Greenland records probably refer to F. a. nawman’ni but arctiea has been taken at Holsteinborg (and elsewhere ~).
In Europe breeds from Berlenga Islands, off Portugal, north to Norway, the British Isles (mainland of Great Britain, Ireland, Scilly Islands, Outer Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland Islands), the Faroes and Iceland.
Winter range: Birds probably winter as far north as they find open water, but there is little definite information on this point. They occur along the coast of Maine south to Massachusetts, rarely to Long Island, New York, and casually to the Delaware River (near Chester, Pennsylvania). Audubon recorded it from the mouth of Savannah River.
They also winter about the coast of Great Britain and south to the western Mediterranean Sea (Spain, east coast, Italy, Sicily, Malta, and the coast of Morocco), casually to the Azores and Canary Islands.
Spring migration: MigratiOn dates are almost wholly lacking. A bird was taken on Long Island, New York, March 30 (one found April 30 was badly decayed and may have died weeks previously).
Massachusetts, leave sometime in March. They arrive on their breeding grounds in the British Isles from the last of March to early May somewhat earlier than they do in North America.
Fall migration: Migration along the New England coast takes place in October (Massachusetts, October 16). A bird has been recorded from the Ottawa River in October, and a specimen was taken at Davis Inlet, Labrador, as late as October 4.
Egg dates: Gulf of St. Lawrence: 34 records, June 6 to July 10; 17 records, June 15 to 26. Great Britain: 9 records, May 27 to June 30; 5 records, June 4 to 8. Iceland: 8 records, May 22 to July 16; 4 records, June 11 to 24. Newfoundland and eastern Labrador: 5 records, June 8 to July 7; 3 records, July 1 to 3. Maine: 3 records, June 19 and July 27.
FRATERCULA ARCTICA NAUMANNI Norton
The puffin of the coasts and islands of the Arctic Ocean from Greenland to Nova Zembla has been separated from the common Atlantic Puffin as a large subspecies. The difference in size had long been known and was recognized in nomenclature by Naumann under the specific name Mormoii, glacialis of Leach.
Mr. IV. Elmer Ekblaw writes to me in regard to this puffin:
According to the Eskimo, the puffin is constantly increasing in numbers on the northwest coast of Greenland, the increase having become most marked within the last 10 years. The older Eskimo state that to see the puffin was formerly a rare occurrence, and that some years the people living near the usual nesting sites of this bird saw none throughout the season, whereas now they never fail to observe it rather commonly.
The puffin occurs nowhere very abundantly in comparison with the murres and dovekies, but at some places it is rather common. According to the Eskimo it nests toward the ~vest end of the Crimson Cliffs, at Cape Parker Snow and Cape Dudley Digges, at Cape Alexander on Saunders Island, on Northumberland Island, and on Hakluyt Island, the greatest number being found toward the west end of the Crimson Cliffs, and on Hakluyt Island.
Nesting: Its nesting sites are the cliffs and steeper slopes of the outermost capes and the islands along the outer coast. It nests in flocks, nearly always in the same locality as the murres. The nest Is placed in burrows in grass, In moss-covered talus slopes, or in turfy places on the cliffs. The eggs are found in June or early July.
Eggs: Very few eggs have found their way into collections; what eggs are available seem to be exactly like those of the common puffin, but average slightly longer. The measurements of 7 eggs, in vanous collections, average 63.8 by 43.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 67 by 45, 66 by 46, 59 by 42.5, and 62 by 42 millimeters.
Food: Mr. Ekblaw says:
It feeds upon the same kind of food as does the murre: flsh, crustaces, etc., especially upon a species which, from the Eskimo description, Fabricius translates as “Pulex mans aid rostro serrato.”
Behavior: The Eskimo say that the puffin is not at all shy. It does not dive, when out on the sea, until it is approached very near. It generally feeds in pairs on the water. It flies about as fast as a Inurre. In season, the Eskimo women frequently catch it in their nets, when they are out on the cliffs primarily for murres.
This puffin seems to be in part a migrant; hut not much is known concerning Its times, route, or extent of migration. Certainly it is found even In winter in Greenland waters. It comes to the Cape York district at the same time as the murres, generally in company with them, about the 10th of May, It leaves about the same time as the murres, in late August. It lives mostly out on the open sea.
It is rather strange that so little is known about the migrations and winter home of this subspecies. There seem to be no satisfactory records for North America, outside of Greenland, and I could never understand why Greenland should be considered as faunally a part of our Continent.
Breeding range: Coasts and islands of the Arctic Ocean from central western Greenland (Baflin Bay; Disco Bay, north to Smith Sound) east to Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla. Some Greenland records of F. a. arctica undoubtedly apply to this form, while records of ‘naumanni from northern Labrador are doubtful. Audubon’s record from Grand Manan with little doubt refers to arctica.
Winter range: Unknown. Probably not far from its breeding grounds if open water occurs.
Egg dates: -Greenland: 16 records, June 1 to July 16; 9 records, June 19 to 20.