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Tufted Puffin

A medium-sized seabird found in the North Pacific Ocean, known for its distinctive tuft of yellow feathers on its head, bright orange bill, and its ability to "fly" underwater using its wings to swim after fish.

Breeding in inhospitably cold portions of the northeastern Pacific Ocean, the Tufted Puffin spends most of its life at sea. Although it uses its feet to paddle when swimming on the surface of the ocean, the Tufted Puffin instead flaps its half-opened wings to propel itself underwater when diving.

Though it can nest in association with other Tufted Puffins, nesting also takes place in solitary pairs. Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons are known predators of Tufted Puffins, but there is little data on how long puffins typically live.

Tufted Puffin

© Mike’s Birds

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


After six long days at sea we were thoroughly tired of tossing about on the turbulent waters of the Pacific Ocean, weary of watching even the graceful evolutions of albatrosses, fulmars, and petrels, and we hailed with delight our first glimpse of the Aleutian Islands, as the rugged peaks of the Krenitzin group, Tigalda. Avatinak, and Ugamak, looked up in the horizon, dimly outlined in the foggy distance. They are the sturdy sentinels of rock that guard the entrance to Bering Sea, shrouded in perpetual mist, their snow-capped summits enveloped in heavy banks of cloud. Such is the gateway to this interesting region and here we were introduced to its wonderful bird life. We had seen a few tufted puffins at sea, migrating toward their summer home, but it was not until we reached the entrance to Unimak Pass that we began to realize the astonishing abundance of this species in that region. The sea was smooth, and scattered over its surface for miles, as far as we could see, were thousands and thousands of tufted puffins. We stood in the bow and watched them in their ludicrous attempts to escape as we passed through them. The wind was very light and was behind us. which made it almost impossible for them to rise from the water; they flopped along the surface in the most helpless manner; they barely managed to avoid being run over, but almost never succeeded in flying and only occasionally did they have sense enough to escape by diving, at which they were very skillful. They had probably only recently arrived and were congregating in the vicinity of their breeding grounds. The tufted puffin is largely pelagic in its habits, during the great part of the year migrating well out at sea, almost out of sight of land, and gradually working in toward shore, as the breeding season approaches. They are usually in pairs when they arrive.

Spring: The arrival of the “Toporkie,” as they are called, is a cause of great rejoicing among the Aleuts, for it heralds the approach of summer and means an abundant supply of good food, for both birds and eggs are a welcome relief from salted and dried seal meat on which they have been living. As soon as the puffins are sufficiently abundant about the islands where they breed the natives organize merry hunting parties to capture them. On certain days they frequent their breeding grounds in immense numbers, flying back and forth in straight lines, crossing and recrossing the small grass topped island, just high enough to clear it. The birds are swift fliers and seem unable to change their course quickly. The Aleuts take advantage of this peculiarity and catch them in large, long handled nets, which are suddenly raised in front of the birds and which they can not dodge. It is a simple process when the birds are flying thickly, and large numbers are taken in this way. The birds are killed by biting the head or breaking the back. Besides furnishing a welcome supply of fresh meat, the birds are skinned and the skins are cured and used for clothing. A parka made of puffin skins is not only a very warm but a very light and serviceable garment. About 45 skins are required to make one parka, which is made like a shirt with a hood and is worn with the feathers on the inside.

Nesting: Among the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands we found the tufted puffin breeding in a variety of situations. On June 15, 1911, we visited a small rocky island in Nazan Bay, Atka Island, on the rounded top of which enough soil had accumulated to support a rank growth of heavily tufted grass. As we drew near we could see a few quaint white faces, with flowing plumes, peering out from the crevices in the rocks, and many more of them half hidden in the long grass. The comical solemnity of this species and the long snowy locks, slightly tinged with yellow, have suggested the appropriate name by which it is called the “old man of the sea.” Long before we landed the puffins had all left the island, flying out to meet us, circling about us several times until their curiosity was satisfied and finally settling down on the water to watch proceedings from a safe distance. The crevices in the rocks were inaccessible, but there were plenty of burrows in the soil among the grass. We dug out several burrows, but found no eggs and concluded that most of the birds had not laid.

On Bogoslof Island, on July 4, 1911, we found a few pairs of tufted puffins breeding in burrows in the sandy bluffs above the beaches and in the sandy and stony slopes aboub Castle Rocks, among the great murre colonies. Their burrows were rather shallow, and in one I could plainly see the egg without opening the burrow; they were generally profusely lined with feathers and straws. Some of the material must have been stolen from the neighboring gulls’ nests or brought from a long distance; for there was no vegetation on the island.

On Walrus Island, on July 7, 1911, we found numerous pairs nesting under the loose rocks in the center of the island among the paroquet, crested, and least aukiets, where they made poor attempts at nests of straw and feathers. The grassy uplands were entirely occupied by glaucous and glaucous-winged gulls, but a large open space of bare ground was so honeycombed with burrows of tufted puffins that we could hardly walk without breaking into them. The entrances to occupied holes were decorated with gull feathers and wlth the broken shells of murres’ eggs; the nests at the ends of the shallow burrows were rudely made of gulls’ feathers and dry grasses. Very few puffins were seen, as they were busy incubating on their single eggs, but if we dug them out, they went scrambling off toward the water, bounding over the ground in their frantic efforts to fly. Mr. William Palmer (1899) mentions a nest, found on this island “on August 7, which contained a slightly incubated egg. This nest was placed between bowlders, open to the sky, and was made of seaweeds and seaferns. It was quite large, about 15 inches in diameter, scanty in material, and practically bare in the center.”

The nesting habits of this puffin in the great bird reservations on the coast of Washington have been well described by Messrs. William Leon Dawson and Lynds Jones. The largest colony on this coast seems to be on Carroll Islet where in 1907 Mr. Dawson (1908) estimated that there were 10,000 tufted puffins nesting. In 1905 Mr. Dawson estimated the puffins on this island at 5,000, showing a decided increase in two years under protection. This island is a “high, rounded mass of sandstone, tree crowned, and with sides chiefly precipitous. The crest is covered also with a dense growth of elderberry, salmon berry, or salal bush, while the upper slopes are covered with luxuriant grasses.” Professor Jones (1908) says of the nesting of the tufted puffin here:

The only places where this species was not present and nesting were the rock precipices and the forested area, except, of course, the ledges, which were wholly occupied by murres and cormorants. Even the fringe of dense brush contained many nests. It is well known that the typical nesting habit of these birds is to find or make a burrow, usually among the rocks. The most of such burrows observed seemed to have been cleared of debris by the birds and some of them had clearly been made by the birds without much, if any, natural cavity, to mark the beginning. An occasional burrow was so shallow that the bird or egg could be seen but most of them extended a number of feet into the ground. In walking over a turf-covered, steep slope one needed to be careful not to break through these burrows and take a headlong tumble. In climbing such a steep slope the mouths of the burrows afford a comfortable foothold. In descending such a slope rapidly you are more than likely to have the leg bearing the most strain bumped just behind the knee by a frightened bird as it rushes headlong from Its nest. One of our pleasant surprises with these birds was the finding of some nests beneath the thickly matted salal bushes, but without the semblance of a burrow. Clearly the birds considered the bushes a sufficient protection from marauding enemies, and were content to simply arrange their nest material upon the ground.

A 45-degree slope of soil is the characteristic nesting site of the puffin. Here tunnels are driven at random to a depth of 3 or 4 feet, and so close together that once, on Erin, by placing a foot in the entrance of a burrow and fetching a compass, I was able to touch with the hands the entrance of 25 others, apparently occupied. This may have been an unusually populous section, but reckoning at half that rate, an acre of ground would carry 2,700 burrows. Hard or rocky soil Is not shunned In prosperous colonies, but many efforts here are baffled outright and “prospects” are at least as numerous as occupied burrows. Elsewhere the top soil on precipitous, clinging ledges may be utilized, or else crannies, crevices, and rock-hewn chambers.

The tufted puffins have always been one of the interesting features of the famous Farallone Islands and their nesting habits there have been described by various writers. Here they seem to prefer to nest in the crevices in the cliffs and in cavities under the bowiders which form natural burrows from 2 to 5 feet in depth. Sometimes crude nests are made of coarse, dry weeds, but more often there is no attempt at nest building.

Eggs: This puffin lays but one egg, which is usually “ovate” in shape; some specimens are more pointed, with a tendency toward “ovate pyriform.” The shell is thick and lusterless. The color is very pale bluish white, or dull, dirty white. Many eggs show a few, and some numerous, spots or scrawls of various shades of gray or pale brown, which sometimes form a ring around the larger end. The measurements of 43 eggs in the United States National Museum and the writer’s collections average 72 by 49.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extreme measure 78 by 50, 73.5 by 51.5, 65.5 by 49.5, and 68.5 by 45 millimeters.

Young: Apparently two broods are raised in a season, at least in the southern portion of its breeding range, for eggs are found in the Farallone Islands early in May and fresh eggs are found again early in July. Mr. W. Otto Emerson states positively that two broods are raised and gives the period of incubation as 21 days. Both sexes in.. cubate. Mr. Emerson says that they take turns at the duties of incubation every 12 hours, relieving each other at night and morning. Each bird spends a part of the day or night at sea in search of food, but, when not so occupied, it may be seen standing like a sentinel at the entrance of the burrow, waiting to relieve its incubating mate.

Mr. Emerson says:

The young are fed in the burrow until fully feathered and large enough te take care of themselves in the sea water. The food of the young consists of shellfish, mussels, sea urchins, small smelt, sardines, herring, and perch.

The young puffins are gluttonous feeders and will gorge themselves with food until they can hardly move. They are also very pugnacious, fighting among themselves and biting at anything that comes within reach.

Plumages: The young when first hatched is completely covered with long, soft, silky down, sooty black above and sooty grayish below. It remains in the nest until it is at least partly fledged; in the juvenal plumage the feathers of the belly are largely white, but ordinarily these white feathers are soon replaced by those of the first winter plumage. In this plumage the upper parts are blackish and the under parts dark brown, but the feathers of the belly are whitish basally; young birds during the first winter can be readily distinguished from aduhs by their smaller, weaker, bills without the grooves, by their brown irides and by the entire absence of the crests or ear tufts. At the first prenuptial molt, which is only partial, the face becomes partially white, the first ear tufts, which are dull yellowish brown in color, are acquired, the irides become White and the bill is partially developed. At the first postnuptial molt, during the following August and September, the adult winter plumage is assumed by a complete molt.

Adults have an incomplete prenuptial molt, involving at least the head and neck and perhaps much of the contour plumage, and a complete postnuptial molt. At this latter molt the white face and the long, flowing plumes of the nuptial plumage disappear, the cuirass or horny covering at the base of the bill is shed and the white irides become pale blue. In the winter plumage the face is wholly dark brown and the ear tufts or plumes are either entirely lacking or replaced by rudimentary dull yellowish plumes. Winter adults often have many white or gray-tipped feathers on the under parts.

Food: The food of the tufted puffin consists mainly of fish, such as smelts (sometimes 8 or 10 inches long), sardines, herring, and perch, which it catches by diving and swimming swiftly under water and which it carries crosswise in its bill. It also feeds largely on various mollusks, sea urchins, and other sea food, including algae. Its powerful beak is well designed for crushing the shells of mollusks and sea urchins. Most of its food is obtained at sea, for which it often travels many miles.

According to Prof. Harold Heath (1915) these puffins which are very abundant about Forrester Island, Alaska, make themselves a nuisance to the fishermen in that region; he writes:

For fearlessness, pluck, and dash the tufted puflins have no equal on the island, and the maledictions and gaff hooks burled at them during the fishing season were probably as numerous as the birds themselves. While their natural food consists almost wholly of sand launces, they are by no means averse toï cleaning the bait from the fishermen’s hooks. For hours at a time they will follow a rowboat, and rarely indeed is a fisherman able to sink a line below their diving depth, or slip It into the water without detection. Fortunately not all of the puffins are engaged in this thrifty method of gathering food, and the boatman Is usually able to cross some other fisherman’s path and switch the pest on to his trail.

On one occasion a puffin was stunned by an accurately jimed gaff hook and was hauled aboard. Upon recovering consciousness it was held by the feet and fed herring until the exasperated boatman terminated its career by ~vringIng its neck. This is perhaps an extreme case, but it serves to illustrate the boldness of the species and to furnish a reason for the steady Increase in numbers which the natives have observed during the past 20 years.

Behavior: The tufted puffin, with its heavy body and small wings, experiences considerable difficult.y in rising from the water in calm weather or with the wind behind it; I have often seen it make futile attempts to do so, flapping along the surface, dropping into the water and trying again and again, it is equally incapable of rising from the land and generally prefers to launch into the air from a cliff or steep hillside, where it glides downward for several feet before gaining headway enough to fly. But, when once under way its Ilight is strong, direct, and well sustained. It makes long flights to and from its feeding grounds and on migrations. It usually flies well up in the air, but it can not rise abruptly or change its course suddenly; it usually circles about in long curves, rising gradually.

It is a good diver, swimming below the surface with both wings and feet in use, but it does not like to dive and prefers to escape by some other method, if possible. It often dives directly out of the air into the water or plunges below the surface as soon as it alights, which is a rather clumsy performance. It is quite active on land, walking about in a lively manner or standing erect on its toes. Its attitude is one of ludicrous solemnity. suggestive of its common name, “sea parrot.” It is exceedingly tough and hard to kill, carrying off a lot of heavy shot; when wounded, it is useless to pursue it. Its body is so solid and muscular that the means ordinarily used for killing birds hardly proves effective; one particularly tough individual which, for three times in succession, I supposed I had killed, finally escaped.

This puffin, like most sea birds, is a sociable species on its breeding grounds, where it seems to live on good terms with its neighbors. It occasionally borrows a little nesting material from the gulls, but it never disturbs the eggs of other species. Mr. Chester Barlow (1894a) writes of finding a dead Cassins’ auklet and its egg in a burrow occupied by an incubating tufted puffin, from which he inferred that the puffin had killed the auklet and taken possession of its home. Mr. Milton S. Ray (1904) cites the following incident:

On one occasion I chased a rabbit to a burrow among the rocks, but the animal had scarcely entered when out It quickly jumped. I looked In, and there, sentinel like, stood the puffin on guard with a bill full of “bunny’s” fur.

The young puffins are very quarrelsome among themselves and are particularly aggressive toward human beings, but their weapons are not formidable. The old birds, however, are both vicious and formidable and must be handled with thick gloves, if at all. Their beaks are powerful and sharp, they will bite at anything which comes within reach and often hang on with such bulldog tenacity that their strong jaws must be pried apart. They can inflict severe wounds, biting through the flesh to t.he bone.

Several writers have referred to the tufted puffin as quarrelsome and noisy on its breeding grounds. where its notes are said to resemble the growling of a bear. I have always found it absolutely silent, and believe that these references to its vocal powers are based on hearsay or on confusion with the notes of auklets or other birds occupying the same breeding grounds.

Winter: After the breeding season is over and the young are able to take care of themselves they all move away from their summer homes, to roam about on the open seas, where very little seems to be known about their winter habits. I have seen this species farther from land, by several hundred miles, than any of the other Alcidae and suppose that they are widely scattered during the winter over the north Pacific Ocean.

Breeding range: Coasts and islands of the North Pacific and Bering Sea and portions of the Arctic Ocean. From California (Santa Barbara Islands, rarely San Nicholas) and from Japan (north end of Yezo) and the Kuril Islands north to northwestern Alaska (Cape Lisburne) and northeastern Siberia (Koliutschin Island).

Winter range: In most of its range a permanent resident, but northerly breeding birds winter somewhat south of their summer home. Recorded in winter north to the Aleutian Islands.

Spring migration: Migration consists principally of returning to its nesting grounds from the near-by open sea. Birds arrive at the Pribilof Islands about May 10 (occasionally as early as March 5), St. Michael June 8, Kotzebue Sound June 25 (or later), and Gichiga River, Anadyr district, Siberia, May 1 to 15.

Fall migration: Birds remain in northeastern Siberia, Anadyr district, until October 15 (a few even later), and a specimen was taken at St. Michael, Alaska, as late as October 12, Walrus Island, October 2, and St. Paul Island, December 8.

Casual records: Reinhardt records a specimen taken in Greenland and Audubon obtained and figured a bird from the mouth of the Kennebec River, Maine. Records from the Bay of Fundy are erroneous.

Egg dates: Farallone Islands: 81 records, April 30 to July 8; 41 records, May 27 to June 17. Washington: 12 records, May 30 to July 23; 6 records, June 19 to 27. Southern Alaska and Aleutian Islands: 11 records, June 17 to July 18; 6 records, June 29 to July 7.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of 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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