Atlantic Puffin | Oceana Canada

Seabirds

Atlantic Puffin

Fratercula arctica

Also known as

Common puffin

Distribution

Cold temperate to polar latitudes of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans

Ecosystem/Habitat

Nest on rocky coasts; feed in coastal to open ocean

Feeding Habits

Foraging predator

Conservation Status

Not listed

Taxonomy

Order Charadriiformes (gulls, auks & relatives); Family Alcidae (auks)

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Atlantic puffins are a colourful and charismatic seabird and are the only puffin that lives in the Atlantic Ocean. These seabirds are an icon of Atlantic Canada and are even the official provincial bird of Newfoundland and Labrador! Puffins are excellent swimmers and, like penguins, use their wings to swim underwater when chasing prey. They superficially resemble small penguins in appearance, but unlike penguins, they are good fliers and take long foraging trips far from their nesting sites. In fact, Atlantic puffins spend most of their life at sea, only coming to shore during the nesting season in the spring. Although they can fly, they are known to be quite clumsy when manoeuvring a landing on shore or the ocean’s surface.

Atlantic puffins are a relatively small, stocky seabird and are the smallest of the three species of puffins found in Canada – the others being the tufted puffin and the horned puffin. Their black head, back and wings contrast sharply with their white underside. They have a short neck, large head and a thick, triangular beak. Both sexes of Atlantic puffin look the same, but males tend to be slightly larger than females. Atlantic puffins are well known for their colourful features, notably their bright orange, yellow and bluish beak, red and blue features around the eyes, and orange feet. However, they only take on these coloured facial features during the breeding season. After the breeding season, adult puffins shed the bright plates on their beak and around their eyes and take on a much darker, grey colour. Juvenile puffins look similar to adults in their winter colouration, but they have smaller and more pointed beaks. Because adult puffins look so different between the breeding and non-breeding seasons, at one point in time people thought they were two different species.

 

While Atlantic puffins live in large colonies during nesting season, they are often solitary outside of this period, including while overwintering at sea. Like many other seabirds, Atlantic puffins get all their food from the ocean but nest on land. Their preferred prey includes forage fishes, such as herring, capelin and sandlance. While nesting, they generally feed close to shore but may go on longer foraging trips. Atlantic puffins are pursuit divers – they “duck dive” from the sea surface and chase prey, using their wings like flippers. Using this method, they can dive as deep as 60 metres. When on long foraging trips, Atlantic puffins rest and even sleep on the sea surface rather than on the wing. 

Atlantic puffins reach sexual maturity around four to seven years of age depending on where they live. During the nesting season, they return to the same colonies where they were born and form pair bonds that allow them to raise chicks to maturity in the harsh north Atlantic Ocean. Nesting season occurs in the spring with most colonies and nest sites found in coastal grasses or rocky crevices on islands and sea cliffs. Atlantic puffins are monogamous throughout the nesting season, with some pair bonds remaining consistent from year to year. Pairs exhibit their bond by rubbing their bills together. The pair will work together to dig a shallow hole into the ground, using their bills and feet, in order to build their nest. In rocky areas, they will make their nest under a boulder or in rocky crevices, which they will then line with grasses and twigs. The female usually lays one egg and both parents take turns incubating during the 36 to 45 days before it hatches. As with everything else, the pair will share the responsibility of feeding their chick right up until it is mature enough to leave the nest.

 

Atlantic puffins were historically hunted heavily and populations on both sides of the Atlantic have declined. During the 19th century there was heavy overharvesting of both eggs and adults for human consumption. Although this practice is now banned, Atlantic puffins still face other threats. As diving birds, they are threatened with entanglement in fishing gear, such as gillnets and longlines, which can cause them to drown. Furthermore, changes in abundance, size and availability of forage fish, like capelin, are associated with lower reproductive success of puffins.

Atlantic puffins are listed under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as vulnerable, however they have not been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). In many areas where Atlantic puffins are found, their populations are showing downward trends. While population declines in the past were a result of direct hunting, today it is believed that these small population declines are due to changes in North Atlantic food webs and impacts from climate change.

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