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Commonly Asked Questions

Appears in Georgia Aquarium's:
  • Pacific Seabirds (Cold Water Quest)

Range / Habitat

  • Distribution
    • Northern Pacific along the coast of Japan to Northeast Asia and from Southern California to Alaska.
  • Habitat
    • A pelagic seabird. Spends much of the year off shore; returns to the coast to nest and raise chicks.
      • During breeding season, found along sea coasts, rocky cliffs and offshore islands.
      • During non-breeding season, ranges over adjacent waters usually only to the edge of the continental shelf.

Physical Characteristics

  • Size:
    • Medium to large member of the auk, or alcid, family. The largest of the puffins, about the size of a crow.
    • Size varies some based on location. Western Pacific birds tend to be slightly larger than eastern birds.
    • Common length of 15 inches (38 cm).
    • Common wingspan of 15 inches (38 cm).
  • Appearance:
    • Coloration becomes more decorative starting in the winter in preparation for breeding season in the spring.
      • Body and top of the head are brownish black, with a white face mask extending around the sides of the head to two long yellow to gold tufts of feathers which start above and behind the eye. Bright orange legs and feet.
      • Very large, bright, mostly orange to red bill during mating season, which may have yellow or greenish markings.
      • After breeding season, loses its tufts, and bill fades to a duller orange or reddish-brown. Belly may be spotted with paler brown speckles.
    • Male and female are similar in appearance. Male is larger.
    • Juvenile is similar to adult, except with a grey-brown breast, white belly and brown bill.

Diet / Feeding

  • Diet consists primarily of anchovies and other small fish, as well as squid, octopus, crabs, zooplankton and jellies.
    • Chick diet is almost entirely fish, while adult diet is more varied.
  • Feeding behaviors:
    • Feeds by diving under water in pursuit of prey.
    • Forages over waters close to breeding colonies, unless iced over.
    • May capture and hold multiple small fish crosswise in bill to bring to chicks – often carrying 5 to 20 fish at a time, but may carry up to 60 fish at once. Adult eats its own food while foraging under water.

Reproduction / Growth

  • Forms large breeding colonies on the shores of islands and coastal areas throughout its range, often mixed with other puffins and auks.
  • Prefers to nest in areas with steep, grassy slopes suitable for burrowing, though may build nests on rocky cliffs too. Higher areas are preferred, because this allows birds to dive down and gain momentum in order to take flight.
  • Breeds once yearly, usually starting in April, though mating may begin as early as March or as late as May. Peak egg-laying period is usually about two weeks for each colony. Eggs laid later than June are unlikely to produce fledglings.
  • Forms monogamous pairs.
  • Mating may take place either in the water or on land.
  • Courtship rituals include flying straight up, or skypointing, strutting and billing.
  • Each mating pair produces one off-white egg per season, sometimes with light blue or brown markings.
  • Both parents protect and incubate the egg until it hatches after about 40-53 days.
  • Parents continue to care for and feed the chick until fledging at about 45-55 days.
  • Both male and female reach reproductive maturity between 3-4 years of age.

Conservation Status

  • “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List.
    • Abundant in Alaska, where federal and state laws protect seabird colonies.
    • Colonies along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington have been declining since the beginning of the century due to decreasing numbers of fish, ocean pollution and oil spills.

Additional Information

  • Social species with aggregations of various sizes.
  • Taxonomy:
    • There are three species of puffin:
      • Horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata)
      • Tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)
      • Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica – not represented at Georgia Aquarium)
    • Genus name, Fratercula, means “little brother” in Latin, a reference the black and white coloration of these birds, which resembles the robes of a monk.
    • Puffins belong to a group of seabirds known as auks, or alcids.
    • Auks are medium-sized seabirds with long bodies, short tails, small wings and short legs set far back on the body.
    • Auks occur mostly in the Northern Hemisphere. While often compared to penguins, which occur in the Southern Hemisphere, the similarities auks share with penguins are due to convergent evolution, whereby organisms not closely related develop similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments.
    • Unlike the penguin, puffins and other alcids can fly, although they mostly swim while at sea.
  • Swimming/Flight Behavior:
    • Puffins and other alcids are well adapted to life on the ocean. Small wings and legs set far back on the body make these birds excellent swimmers and divers. However, these same traits make alcids clumsy on land, and make taking flight more challenging.
    • Puffins swim by using wings to “fly” under water.
    • Must beat wings rapidly in order to take off and fly.
  • Communication:
    • Has a limited number of calls, including a low grumbling noise usually heard at nesting colonies.
    • Postures and other physical cues are also used for communication.
  • Predation:
    • Preyed on by snowy owls, bald eagles and arctic foxes, as well as sharks and larger seabirds.
    • Protected by isolated and hard-to-reach nesting sites.
  • Lifespan:
    • The oldest tufted puffin was at least 6 years old when it was found in Alaska.
  • Economic importance:
    • Historically hunted for food and clothing, although this is now discouraged or illegal in many areas.
    • Those who do still hunt these birds attempt to capture only non-breeding individuals.
    • Puffin colonies have now become tourist attractions in parts of their range. Since human disturbances may cause puffins to leave their nesting sites, vistors are often prohibited from landing at colonies and must watch the birds from the ocean.

Sources

www.iucnredlist.org

www.animaldiversity.org

www.montereybayaquarium.org

www.beautyofbirds.com

www.allaboutbirds.org

www.audubon.org

www. naturalhistory.si.edu

www.hbw.com