Tufted Puffin | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Tufted Puffin

Fratercula cirrhata

Distribution

Northern Pacific from California, through Canada to Alaska and in Japan and northeastern Asia

Écosystèmes/habitats

Open seas and coastal cliffs

Feeding Habits

Forager

Conservation Status

Not at Risk

Taxonomie

Class Aves (birds), Family Alcidae (auks)

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Tufted puffins are seabirds of the open waters, islands and coastal cliffs of the north Pacific, known for their bold, bright and adorable looks. As a member of the auk family, they are highly adapted for flight underwater, using their wings to “fly” through the water after diving to look for food. Tufted puffins are fairly clumsy on land, making the whole take-off process an interesting task. They often thrash along the surface of the water before becoming airborne. Once in the air, they are strong fliers with certain members of the auk family eventually reaching speeds of over 60km/h. While foraging underwater, they navigate through schools of fish, capturing multiple in their bills at a time. Chicks eat almost entirely small fish such as sand lance but as adults, they also go after squid, crustaceans, sea urchins and other fish such as rockfish.

Brightly coloured facial feathers, golden plumes, orange-red feet and a striking red bill give tufted puffins a very distinctive appearance. They are larger than other puffin species, growing up to 40cm long and weighing around 0.8kg, with males slightly larger than the females. Though known for their bold features, their colours are only so decorative during the breeding season. When breeding ends in the early summer, their bright colours begin to fade, leading to a dull reddish-brown beak and the loss of their golden head plumes. 

Tufted puffins are monogamous, breeding once a year in burrows on coastal cliffs. Spending most of their time at sea, tufted puffins will come on shore in colonies to breed, digging their burrows more than 1.5 metres deep! Females will lay one egg, usually a dull white to blueish-white in colour, which will then be incubated by both the male and female birds for about 40 days. When the chicks are born, they are covered in down and remain in the nest for about 6-7 weeks with both parents carrying fish back to the nest to feed the young puffin. 

While there is no direct fishing industry for tufted puffins, some cultures have traditionally eaten puffin eggs. As well, they can be directly impacted by the activities of fisheries. They are at risk from becoming entangled in fishing nets as they dive under the water for food. Once entangled, puffins can die from drowning. Furthermore, if overfished, fisheries that target forage fish, such as herring, can impact the survival of the tufted puffin by removing their main source of food. 

Tufted puffins are listed by the IUCN Red List as Least Concern and have not been assessed by COSEWIC and are not listed under SARA in Canada. Though they are not listed, tufted puffins face a variety of threats in Canada. At risk from entanglements in fishing gear, they also face threats from pollution. Seabirds are widely known to ingest plastic as they forage, which could cause them to fill up on pollution and starve to death. 

They are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, having lower reproductive success with warmer temperatures. Prolonged increases in ocean temperature could make Triangle Island, which contains the largest tufted puffin colony in Canada, unsuitable as a breeding site for this species. Due to this, they may serve as a valuable indicator of ecosystem health in the North Pacific.

IUCN. (2016). Fratercula cirrhata. Retrieved from http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22694934/0

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (2017). All about birds: Tufted puffin. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tufted_Puffin/overview

National Audubon Society. (n.d.). Guide to North American Birds: Tufted Puffin. Retrieved from https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/tufted-puffin

Gjerdrum, C. et al. (2003). Tufted puffin reproduction reveals ocean climate variability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 100(16):9377-9382. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/100/16/9377.full

Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia. (n.d.). Tufted Puffin. Retrieved from https://www.birdatlas.bc.ca/accounts/speciesaccount.jsp?sp=TUPU&lang=en

Stirling, K. (2000). Fratercula cirrhata. Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved from https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Fratercula_cirrhata/