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Horned Puffin

These distinctive birds live on the coasts of the Pacific ocean.

Though tied to land for nesting, the Horned Puffin is highly pelagic, and juveniles typically spend several years at sea before returning to land to breed. Because of the difficulty of study, almost nothing is known about the migration habits of Horned Puffins.

More adept underwater than in the air, Horned Puffins are known to collide with each other in the crowded airspace above a nesting colony. It is thought that they are capable of diving more the 70 meters below the surface. Wingbeats by half-open wings are used for propulsion underwater.

 

Description of the Horned Puffin

BREEDING MALE

The Horned Puffin is black above and white below with a very large bill.  White face. Orange bill with yellow base.

Female

Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Dark gray face and dusky base of bill in winter.

Horned Puffin

Photograph © Alan Wilson

Juvenile

Resembles winter adults but has a much smaller, dark bill.

Habitat

Oceans and sea cliffs.

Diet

Fish, crustaceans, and squid.

Behavior

Forages by diving.

Range

Breeds off Alaska and northwestern Canada and winters out to sea.

Fun Facts

The puffin’s outlandish bill and habit of carrying multiple fish crosswise in its bill have endeared it to many people.

Male puffins defend their mates at the breeding colony as well as on the water during the breeding season.

Vocalizations

Purring and growling sounds are made on the nesting grounds.

 

Similar Species

  • Tufted Puffins have dark underparts, and Atlantic Puffins do not occur on the west coast of North America.

Nesting

The nest is in a burrow or cliff crevice.

Number: 1.
Color: White with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:  
– Young hatch at about 38-43 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 38-44 days after hatching.

 

Bent Life History of the Horned 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 Horned Puffin – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


HORNED PUFFIN

FRATERCULA CORNICULATA (Naumann)
HABITS

This name seems somewhat misleading and not particularly appropriate, for the so-called horn over the eye is not horny at all, but merely a soft epidermal papilla full of living tissue, which the bird can raise or lower at will; moreover a similar, but smaller, excresence is found in the Atlantic puffin. The horned puffin is essentially an Alaskan and a Bering Sea bird, being found breeding throughout the whole length of the Alaskan coast, from Cape Lisburne, north of the Arctic Circle, south nearly to British Columbia; it also breeds westward throughout the Aleutian Islands and on all the coasts and islands of Bering Sea. It would seem as if the name Alaskan or Pacific puffin would be far more appropriate. This is only one of many misnomers in our nomenclature of North American birds.

Spring: Mr. E. W. Nelson (1887) says.

At the Fur Seal Islands these birds arrive about the 10th of May, in pairs, but near St. Michaels I have never seen them before the 10th of June and rarely before the 20th of that month. At the latter place and at other northern points their arrival is governed by the date when the ice leaves the coast for the summer.

Nesting: The northernmost colony on which I have any notes is on Puffin Island, a small, precipitous rocky islet near Chamisso Island, in Kotzebue Sound, which is now a reservation. Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1900) visited this colony and made the following report:

On July 9, 1899, I spent the afternoon and night on Chamisso Island. On this island and a smaller detached one bearing northwest from it, the horned puffins were breeding in Immense numbers. Their nest burrows were dug In the earth on top of the islands, principally on the verge of the bluffs. These burrows were from 1 to 3 feet in length, with an enlarged nest cavity at the end. The eggs generally lay on the bare ground, but there was often a slight collection of grasses between it and the earth. The parent bird was frequently found on the nest and would sometimes offer courageous resistance to being dragged forth, inflicting severe nips with its powerful mandibles. Where there were rock slides on the side of the island, natural crevices and holes among the fallen boulders were taken advantage of for nesting sites. In such places eggs were to be found from the surf to the top of the Island, and by crawling amongst the boulders many eggs were discovered, but often In such narrow crevices that they could not be reached. The birds usually flushed from their nesting places before the collector reached them, being probably warned by the vibration of footsteps on the rocks which I noticed to be quite perceptible when one was in a narrow chasm. The eggs laid in these rocky niches were usually provided with a scanty bed of dry grasses. All the eggs secured were fresh and proved more palatable for the table than the murre’s eggs.

Mr. Hersey visited this colony on August 2, 1914, when probably most of the young were hatched, although he found a few eggs. His notes state that he frequently saw a bird leave the host of circling puffins, fly up to the entrance to a burrow, flutter a moment, and then fly off. A minute later a bird would fly out from the nest and soon after the other would fly in to take its place on the nest. Once he saw two birds emerge from one burrow.

We found the horned puffin widely distributed among the Aleutian Islands. There was a small breeding colony on a precipitous rocky headland near the entrance to Chernofsky Harbor, but we could not reach it and had to be content with shooting a few birds as they circled out over us. At Atka Island, on June 15, 1911, we found a small breeding colony on a steep rocky island in Nazan Bay where we saw the birds flying in and out of inaccessible crevices in the cliffs; we were too busy with other more important things to devote much time to them. There were also a few pairs of horned puffins circling with a cloud of tufted puffins about another small island in this bay, where a large number of the latter species were breeding. Mr. L. M. Turner (1886.) says of the nesting habits of this species among the Aleutian Islands:

Their nests are placed on the ledges of the highest cliffs of those islands where foxes are found, and on islands where foxes are not found these birds breed generally at the bases of bluffs, under the large rocks which have become detached and fallen down. Their nest is composed of just whatever happens to be there, be it sticks, stones, or earth. A few feathers may be dropped from the bird, but not for an evident purpose of nest construction. A single egg of clear white color is laid on the bare gravel or earth. The egg is very large for the size of the bird, and when cooked is tolerable eating. The bird sits long at a time on the egg, and does not leave it until hunger compels her to seek food.

Mr. H. W. Elliott (1880) says:

This mormon, in common with one other species, M. ci,-rhata, comes up from the sea in the south to the cliffs of the islands about the 10th of May, always in pairs, never coming singly to, or going away from, the Pribylovs in flocks. It makes a nest of dried sea-ferns, grass, and moss, slovenly laid together, far back in some deep or rocky crevice, where, when the egg is laid, it is ninety-nine times out of a hundred cases inaccessible; nothing but blasting powder would open a passage to it for man. It has this peculiarity: It is the only bird on these islands which seems to quarrel for ever and ever with its mate. The hollow reverberations of its anger, scolding, and vituperation from the nuptial chamber, are the most characteristic sounds, and indeed the only ones that come from the recesses of the rocks. No sympathy need be expended on the female. She is just as big and just as violent as her lord and master.

Mr. B. J. Bretherton (1896) gives an unique account of the nesting habits of this species on Kodiak Island; he writes:

On first arriving, these birds do a great deal of flying; they gather in bands, and sit perched on the rocky face of some high btuff, and keep up a continuous whistling call, at irregular intervals the whole band will leave the bluff and fly a short distance out to sea and return.

The eggs of this species are laid in a tunnel, or burrow, dug in the ground by the bird, and a few handfuls of dry grass and feathers constitute the nest.

The construction of the tunnel is unique; it always has an opening at both ends. The nesting site is some high rocky bluff overhanging the sea, and near the top where the soil lies on the rock, the bird commences its excavations, first constructing a sort of runway for a feiv feet along the face of the bluff, then going directly inward, sometimes in a straight line, while others are crooked. In the same way, the length of the tunnel is very variable, and the nest may be at most any distance from 2 to 10 feet from the face of the bluff. From the nest, the tunnel passes on inland, making a sharp upward turn to the surface of the ground.

The same burrows are used year after year, but whether by the same birds or not was not ascertained. Some burrows have by long usage become as large as rabbit holes, while newly made ones are only just large enough to admit the birds. Both entrances are used indiscriminately by the bird, and it is surprising to see with what accuracy they can fly directly into the holes in the ground.

The southernmost breeding colony of horned puffins, so far as I know, is on Forrester Island in southern Alaska, where Prof. Harold Heath (1915) estimated that “not over two or three thousand made their homes” in the summer of 1913. According to his notes, “they form small colonies in the face of a cliff some distance from human habitation and at all times appear to be at peace with their more numerous relatives,” the tufted puffins. They apparently nest here in burrows in the soil, in essentially the same manner as the tufted puffins.

Eggs: The homed puffin lays a single egg, which is large for the size of the bird and ” ovate” in shape with a tendency toward “ovate pyriform”; the shell is thick, roughly granulated and lusterless. The ground color is dull white, dirty white, or creamy white. There are seldom any very conspicuous spots, but nearly all eggs show more or less evident shell markings, spots or scrawls, of “pale lavender gray,” or pale olive or buff; some eggs appear quite spotless but even these, on close examination, have very faint markings. The variation in size is considerable, but the average size is only slightly less than in the eggs of the tufted puffin. The eggs of the two species can not be distinguished with certainty. The measurements of 38 eggs showing the four extremes measure 74 by 50, 73 by 50.5, 58 by 43.5, and 61.5 by 41 millimeters.

Young: Both sexes assist in the process of incubation and in the care of the young. The period of incubation is unknown. Mr. Nelson (1887) says of the development and behavior of the young:

The young take wing in August at the Seal Islands, but north of that point they are rarely fledged before some time in September.

On September 9, 1879, I visited a small Islet a few miles from St. Michaels, where the puffins were breeding in great numbers. The islet arose about 25 feet above the sea and was a mass of rugged basaltic bowiders. Among the crevices hundreds of the puffins were breeding. Both species were here, but the tufted species was in very small numbers compared with the host of the other kind. The young were mostly about half grown, but many only just from the shell and some not even yet hatched were found. The young could be easily located under the stones by the thin metallic piping note they kept uttering during the parents’ absence. As we walked about the old birds coul(l he heard scuttling about below, uttering a hoarse, snuffling, rattling note, which sounded at a short distance like a low growling noise. With a slipping noose on the end of a ramrod it was an easy matter to capture any number of them by simply walking about and peering down Into the crevices, and when a bird was seen pass the noose over the bird’s bill and drag the captive out. They would scratch and bite viciously and utter their usual note in a loud hoarse key.

During our stay the air was full of birds circling about, and often passing within a few feet of us. The young were easily captured by removing the stones, and they also fought when taken. The loose rocks were surrounded by a network of passages, and if it had not been for the birds stupidity they could have easily avoided capture. Aswe began removing the stones overhend, young or old would scramble forward and thrust their great beaks Into the first crevice which offered, although not an Inch ~vide, and then they would push and struggle desperately to force their way through until taken In hand. Even when they managed to escape after being dragged out they would frequently scramble back to the same place again. It was a common occurrence for them to strike among the rocks with a thud as they tumbled off their perches toward the water, and then scramble over the rocks with laughable haste and finally plunge under water and make off, or go flapping desperately along the surface until exhausted. Overhead circled hundreds of the birds, nearly all of which carried fishes in their beaks for their young. These fishes were sticklebacks and sand lances. Some of the birds carried from three to five small fishes at once; the latter were all placed side by side crosswise In the bird’s bill.

Mr. Turner (1886) gives us another chapter in the Story, as follows:

The young leave the nest before being able to fly. The parent assists them to the water; and, should they have been reared on the face of a high bluff, the old bird catches the young one by the wing and they flutter at a long angle to the water. The old bird endeavors to keep under the young one. I have seen them drop their young accidentally and cause great consternation of the parent, which could not check her flight immediately, but returned and showed great solicitude by turning the young one over and over In the water to see If It was Injured. During severe storms the young are taken to the lee of some reef or islet until the waves become quiet.

Plumages: The downy young of the homed puffin is practically indistinguishable from that of the common puffin; the central belly portion is white, sometimes tinged with yellowish or light gray; the upper parts, the throat and the crissuin are light “seal brown” with “drab” shadings; in some specimens the upper parts are “Prout’s brown” or “Vandyke brown.” The progress of the molts and plumages is the same as in the eastern species except that in the first winter plumage, which follows the natal down, the loral and orbital dusky space is darker than in arctica and nearly as dark as the crown; the black throat of corniculata is also acquired with the first plumage. Young birds can be distinguished from adults during the first year by the much smaller and slenderer bill, which does not reach it~ full development until the second spring. After the first postnuptial molt, when the young bird is about 13 or 14 months old, it assumes the adult winter plumage.

The adult has a complete postnuptial molt in August or September and probably a partial prenuptial molt in the spring. The dark face is characteristic of the winter plumage, but the most striking change is in the bill, which molts as in the common puffin. Mr. Nelson (1887) describes this Inolt, which takes place in September, as follows:

At this time the bill molt was .iust commencing. The flxst evidence of this process is shown by the wearing away of the lower mandible on the under surface at the angle. This wearing appears to be brought about by the frlc. tion of this point on the rocks, as the birds use the projecting angle as a hook to aid them in climbing: as I frequently saw them do. The wearing of the lower edge of this mandible leaves a horny scalelike plate on each side of the mandible, with its lower edge free and easily scaled away in small fragments. The Inclosed angle of the mandible is now a soft cartilaginous projection, which shrivels and reduces the size of the beak at that point. Next the horny, beadlike rim along the base of the upper mandible gradually loosens at each end below, and at the same time becomes freed from its attachment to the mandible, leaving a deep sulcus between, exactly as if done by a skillful cut with a scalpel. This bendlike rim now forms n part of the skin of the head and moves as such, perfectly independent of the beak. Then the narrow piece of sheath between the nares and the cutting edge of hill loosens and scales off. The entire base of the mandible is now in an exfoliating state and scales away, working toward the point of the beak. The narrow piece along the frontal line is pitted: each pit marking the position of a feather, as Is shown In many cases where minute feathers are present. When this horny cover Is removed a callous membrane bearing feathers is exposed, and these feathers extend up and pierce the fallen scale. The basal angle of the lower mandible becomes pliable before the horny cover breaks, and a dark suffusion shows as though a watery fluid had exuded between the horny sheath and the cartilage.

Food: IEarly in the morning many of the puffins, nearly all of those that are not incubating, leave their breeding grounds and fly out to sea in search of food; they may be seen going and coming more or less during the day, with their bills full of small fish for their mates or for the young; at night they all return. Their food consists mainly of small fishes, such as sand lances, sticklebacks, and smelt. Mr. Turner (1886) says:

Their food is composed of mollusks of various kinds, a few shreds of certain seaweed fronds, and larvae, xvhich are abundant on some of these seaweeds.

Behavior: Pufflns play the part of the clown among birds; their appearance is comical in any attitude, and their movements are ludicrous enough as they walk about on their toes, in a semierect position, with a droll dignity peculiarly their own, or stand peering out of their nesting burrows, with an air of stupid inquiry. They are certainly fantastic combinations of the solemn and the burlesque. They are much at home on the rocks, where they are very active on their feet, walking or running with ease. When launching into the air off the rocks they glide swiftly downward with feet widely spread, sweeping in a wide circle out over the water and returning soon again to fly past or over the point from which they started. They seem to be impelled by curiosity or by their attachment to their homes to repeat this flight maneuver over and over again, flying in a large circle or in an ellipse, out over the ocean and hack again past the cliffs. hunters take advantage of this habit to lie in wait for them and shoot them, but if too much molested they become more wary. They are very hard to kill, however, as they are very tenacious of life. Their flight is not particularly swift, but quite steady, strong, and protracted; the wings are moved very rapidly and constantly; the body and head are held in compact form and the feet are carried straight backward to help in steering. They swim buoyantly and are expert divers. In diving the body is often raised clear of the water, and a curving downward plunge is made. Under water they use both wings and feet, flying rapidly through the water in pursuit of their finny prey.

Horned puffins are sometimes quite noisy when quarreling in their burrows, but at other times they are usually silent except for a varlety of low growling or grunting sounds, frequently heard on their breeding grounds, which are probably love notes or friendly communications.

Winter: During the latter part of September, or as soon as the young birds are able to fly, they leave their breeding grounds in northern Bering Sea for their winter quarters. Many winter in the open waters about the Aleutian Islands and farther south along the Alaskan coast; many probably spend the winter wandering over the open ocean. Probably the birds which breed south of the Alaska Peninsular do not migrate far from their summer haunts.

DISTRIBUTION
Breeding range: Coasts and Islands of the North Pacific, Behring Sea, and the Aretic Ocean. From southern Alaska (Forrester Island, St. Lazaria Island, and Prince William Sound) west throughout the Aleutian Islands. North along the Alaskan coast (St. Michael, Kotzebue Sound, and Cape Lisburne), and on the Pribilof Islands, St. Matthew, St. Lawrence, and the Diomede Islands. Also from the Commander Islands north along the Siberian coast to Bering Strait (East Cape) and Koliutschin Island. As Nelson saw a bird at Herald Island, it may breed there also. Probably breeds in the Kurile Islands.

Winter range: Southern Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. From the Aleutian and Commander Islands south along the Alaskan coast to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and along the Asiatic coast to the Kurile Islands. Taken once in California (Pacific Grove, Monterey County).

Spring migration: Taken at Nushagak, Alaska, May 9. They arrive at the Pribilof Islands, May 10; at St. Michael, June 10 to 20; and at Chamisso Island, Kotzebue Sound, June 25.

Fall migration: Taken at St. Matthew Island, September 22. They depart from their breeding grounds near St. Michael, September 20, and at the Pribilof Islands, September 10; but individuals probably remain on the open sea at no great distance much later.

Egg dates: Alaska, north of peninsula: 24 records, June 24 to September 1; 12 records, June 27 to July 9. Alaska, south of peninsula: 13 records, June 6 to July 11; 7 records, June 17 to July 5.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of Birdzilla.com. He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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