Atlantic puffins are perhaps one of the most charismatic and adorable sea birds out there. With their short demeanour, rainbow coloured beaks, and something something something, it’s hard not to love these birds. Sadly though, their populations have been declining over the past few years.
Puffins are small birds, about the same size as a teacup. They stand 10 inches tall and weigh no more than 17.5 ounces. They sport penguin-like colouring, black and white. Though, what is perhaps most distinctive of Atlantic puffins are there multicoloured beaks. These colourful beaks are what gave them the nicknames, “sea parrots” and “the clowns of the sea”. However, they don’t stay for long. Their beaks turn a drab grey colour in winter, but then burst back into a rainbow of colours during the spring. This seems to suggest that the coloration is used to attract potential mates.
Puffins are birds that are quite at home out on the seas. In fact, the only time the birds ever come to land is during the breeding season. As expected of a seabird, they’re excellent swimmers. They use their wings to create a sort of “stroking” motion underwater, - as if they were flying, and steer themselves with their webbed feet. The tiny birds will dive for prey up to 200 feet below the water’s surface. Though, they’ll usually only stay underwater for about 20 to 30 seconds. Puffins are just as formidable in the air as they are in the water. The small birds can flap their wings at over 400 times per minute, resulting in top speeds of up to 55 miles per hour!
You could probably guess that puffins, being seabirds and all, eat fish. As a matter of fact they do. They typically will eat small fish, such as herring or sand eels.
A truly unique spectacle about puffins is that the only time they ever come on to land is for the breeding season. Every year in late spring, the puffins will return to land, where they’ll nest on rocky cliff top colonies and dig burrows for themselves. Surprisingly, their webbed feet make for great shovels.
The females will lay a single white egg, and will be incubated by both the mother and father. When a chick finally hatches, both mom and dad take turns going out over the sea to bring back food. Their small bills are relatively spacious and they can bring back several small fish. The record for the most fish belongs to a puffin found off the coast of Britain with a whopping 62 fish! After about 6 weeks, the puffin chicks are now fully fledged and can now make the journey to the open sea, where it will stay until the next breeding season.
In 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the Atlantic puffins conservation status from “least concern” to “vulnerable”. In other words, these cute and charismatic birds are under threat of extinction. The scientists noted that they observed “rapid and ongoing” population declines in the bird’s European range. The reasons for this change can be attributed to introduced predators, such as rats, cats, and foxes, toxic pollution, a declining food supply, climate change, and being caught up in discarded fishing nets.
Although this sounds all grim, there is some good news. Conservation organizations, such as the Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, are helping to conserve the birds. They’re helping by eradicating introduced predators from the islands where the birds breed on, and are helping to reintroduce the birds to where they’ve disappeared.