Much Ado About Puffins


Puffin making an entrance
Atlantic Puffin Making an Entrance

“Seabirds are ideal symbols for ocean conservation…
Because they live in a variety of habitats-including oceans, islands, estuaries
and beaches-they can show visitors how all coastal life is connected
and spark new interest in coastal conservation.
Long-term conservation success hinges on public understanding
and community support.”

– Stephen Kress

They look like cartoon characters taken from a Disney animation movie, cute little creatures that instantly put a smile on your face as soon as you see them whether flying and flapping their small wings faster that you would think possible, waddling in a funny penguin-like way or trying to land using their feet as break-pedals against the wind. I’m talking about the most adorable bird you’ll ever see, the Atlantic Puffin, also known as the “Clown of the Ocean” or “Sea Parrot” and by the scientific name of Fratercula artica.

Atlantic Puffin at the Witless Bay Seabird Ecological Reserve
Look how handsome I am

There are four recognized species of puffins, three make the Northern Pacific Coast their home, the Horned Puffin, the Tufted Puffin and the Rhinoceros Auklet, and finally the Atlantic Puffin which not only makes the Northern Atlantic its home but it is the most abundant of the four species, in fact, there are more Atlantic Puffins in the world than the other three species combined.

It is with the Atlantic Puffin that I had the opportunity to spend some quality time last July (2012). As mentioned in my previous post, Why Newfoundland? Puffins were the main reason I chose Newfoundland as my 2012 photo safari destination. Still I was afraid I was not going to see enough to be able to get good pictures of them, of course for people that know the island my fear was laughable and prompted jokes and even bets.

Atlantic Puffin colony at Eliston Island Newfoundland
Move away, I’m trying to land!

What I did not know when I arrived in St. John’s is that Newfoundland, particularly the Witless Bay Seabird Ecological Reserve, South of the capital, St. John’s, provides the breeding habitat to the largest Atlantic Puffin colony in North America. According to studies more than 260,000 pairs of puffins nest in the reserve from late spring to early summer, and that is not the only place where you can find puffin colonies in Newfoundland. No wonder the Atlantic Puffin is the official bird of this Canadian province.

Some Facts About the Atlantic Puffin:

Atlantic Puffin in the Witless Bay Seabird Ecological Reserve
Gone Fishing

The four puffin species are members of the auk family (Alcidae). The Alcidae includes 23 living species and one extinct species, the famous Great Auk.

Many people think that auks and penguins are related, the truth is they are not. The resemblance of the larger auks to penguins and the smaller auks to diving-petrels is due to convergent evolution, a process by which taxonomically unrelated birds are molded to a similar appearance by similar environmental pressures. There are no auks in the southern hemisphere, and similarly there are no penguins or diving-petrels in the northern hemisphere. These groups of marine birds both use their wings for underwater propulsion, are amazing divers, and occupy similar ecological niches in the two hemispheres. The big difference between both groups, of course, is the fact that penguins lost the ability to fly while auks kept it albeit at a very high energy cost.

Puffins are medium size seabirds with black upperparts, white underparts, white face (in breeding plumage), and large, parrot-like orange and grey bill. In the 1800’s the puffin was given the scientific name of Fratercula artica, which means “little brother of the north” in Latin, but the “little brother” term might actually refer to “little friar” because of the bird’s black and white plumage that reminded people of a friar’s robes. In fact, the Spanish name for this bird is “Frailecillo” which does mean “little friar”.

Puffins are generally monogamous meaning their mate for life unless they lose their mate or get divorced. Yes, puffins do get divorced, and it happens because the female puffin found a better and stronger mate, it is all about the survival of the species.

Atlantic Puffins at the the Witless Bay Seabird Ecological Reserve
Hey what are you looking at?

Most puffins nest in earthy burrows, some of them very deep. New burrows are constantly being dug and existing ones are repaired and enlarged using those very powerful and beautiful bills.

Speaking of bills…The puffin’s bill is serrated to help carry fish, it would normally carry between 6 and 10 fish back to its nest but it has actually been recorded holding 62 sand eels! And guess what no fish is lost on the way back home, that is because of an extra bone in the puffin’s jaw which prevents fish at the tip from falling out. Puffins definitively like to provide for their chicks!

Atlantic Puffin at Witless Bay Seabird Ecological  Reserve
Puffins guarding the entrance to their burrows

The Big Surprise

If you think the puffin keeps this striking visual all year, well you are wrong. The fact is that puffins change appearance both as it gets older and over the course of the year. Truth is the puffin changes so much in between seasons (breeding season Vs winter) that if you followed one bird throughout the year you would not believe you are actually looking at the same bird.

In winter attire, the puffin’s face patch is dusky, sometimes almost black, especially in front of, and just around, the eye. The bill, which in spring forms a corneous sheath, solid, colorful and homogeneous not only loses its bright colors but it is shed-off in pieces, like taking off a suit of armor and looking much smaller and duller as a consequence. The eye ring darkens when it loses all its ornaments, giving the bird a ‘wide-eyed’ expression. The legs and feet become pale yellow. It is such a different bird that in the past scientists would classify them as two different species.

Concern About the Future of the Atlantic Puffin’s Population in North America

Atlantic Puffin at the Witless Bay Seabird Ecological Reserve
Resting a bit, while watching these humans taking pictures

According to a news report filed by the Associated Press a couple of weeks ago, the Atlantic puffin population is at risk in the United States, and there are signs the seabirds are in distress in other parts of the world. According to scientists, these beautiful birds have been dying of starvation possibly because of shifting fish populations as the ocean temperature rises, the available fish is not suitable for the fledgling puffins and they just die. At this point the Atlantic Puffin is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List, but the estimated 8 million puffins that live across the North Atlantic, from Maine to northern Russia might not be able to adapt to these very fast changes, and there is so much that can be done to help protect the species especially when the whole ecosystem is changing. According to Steve Kress, director of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration program, “you never know what climate change will bring,” he said. “Historic fish could move out, and the more southerly fish could move in, and puffins may adapt to the new fish. Only they will know how the story will unfold.”

If you want to see pictures of the Atlantic Puffin shedding its bill and begin molting into its winter attire you can visit this site: Atlantic Puffin Changing into Winter Attire

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