ATLANTIC PUFFIN(Fratercula arctica)

The Atlantic puffin has a uniquely colorful bill in breeding season, with the section near the tip being bright orange and grey at the base, with a fine white line in-between. Its shape is also different – high but vertically flat. The legs and feet are bright orange. The sides of the head and face – around the eye – are white, the upper parts are black and the under parts white. There is also a black neckband. It is a small seabird at around 30 cm (12 in.) long. Being dark on top and white below for a seabird offers better camouflage from predators from above and under when on the water.

In April 2018 it was reported that scientists have discovered that the bill of the Atlantic puffin is fluorescent. They are studying the implications of this feature.

The Latin name ‘fratercula’ refers to the similarity of the bird’s black and white plumage to a monk’s (friar) robe. The origin of the English name ‘puffin’ relates to the ‘puffed’ carcasses of another species of bird (a shearwater) that was cured and eaten. Puffins have been hunted for centuries, and are still eaten by some northern populations in Europe.

This seabird is a very social bird that breeds in colonies on small rocky islands on both sides of the North Atlantic and the south part of the Arctic sea in-between. A majority of the colonies are located in Iceland. The nest is inside a burrow. Using small islands for breeding offers some protection from land predators, but not from aerial ones. They spend most of their time at sea however, and winter at large in the same region. Atlantic puffins feed on fish such as sand eel (photo below) and occasionally on crustaceans and worms. They swim underwater with paddle-like wing movements, using their feet as rudders.

The Atlantic puffin does not breed on PEI and there have been only a few sightings so far, including one at East Point on December 14, 2005; there was also a weak bird found at Savage Harbor but that later died Nov. 23, 2015 at the Atlantic Veterinary College (Nature PEI Newsletter #217).

Conservation: Although the Atlantic puffin is listed as ‘least concern, it is vulnerable to various factors including predation. The Audubon Society has a restoration program for them. The Atlantic puffin is the bird that is shown at the top left of the welcome page of the Maritime Breeding Bird Atlas website.

In Newfoundland there is a ‘puffling’ (puffin chick) patrol to prevent the chicks from being killed by traffic at night, when they come out from the nearby Witless Bay Ecological Reserve and get blinded by the street lights. Another source of information on the Atlantic puffin can be found on this website. There is research being done to find out where the Atlantic puffin spends its time outside the breeding season, which has been a mystery so far.

There are concerns in Scotland and Scandinavia over a sharp decrease in the numbers of this species.

Atlantic puffin 'back from a fishing trip' sand eels - by Steve Garvie, Scotland
Atlantic puffin ‘back from a fishing trip’ sand eels) – by Steve Garvie, Scotland
Atlantic puffins on Farne Islands, UK - photo by Matthias Meckel
Atlantic puffins on Farne Islands, UK – photo by Matthias Meckel