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Atlantic Puffin: Identification and Overview

April 2, 2023

The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) is a charismatic and iconic seabird, beloved for its striking appearance and unique nesting habits. Known as the "clown of the sea" due to its colorful bill, the Atlantic Puffin has captivated bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. In this comprehensive exploration, we will delve into the various aspects of the Atlantic Puffin, focusing on its size and shape, color pattern, behavior, habitat, fascinating facts, and ecosystem services. Gain a deeper understanding of this remarkable bird and the critical role it plays in the marine ecosystem.

Related: Learn How to ID Your Favorite Birds

How to ID a Atlantic Puffin

The Atlantic Puffin is a small, stocky seabird, measuring approximately 10-12 inches (26-30 cm) in length, with a wingspan of 20-24 inches (50-61 cm) and a weight of 11-17 ounces (300-500 grams) [1]. The puffin's stout body, short neck, and large head give it a distinctive appearance that sets it apart from other seabirds. The puffin's most iconic feature is its large, triangular bill, which is brightly colored during the breeding season and serves as a visual display [1]. The bill is also well-adapted for catching and holding fish, thanks to specialized structures called maxillary plates. Puffins have webbed feet that are well-suited for swimming and diving, with sharp claws for gripping rocky surfaces. Atlantic Puffins are long-lived birds, with some individuals known to live for more than 30 years [2]. Puffins reach sexual maturity at around 4-5 years of age, but may not breed until they are several years older. Their long lifespan allows them to invest significant time and energy into raising their offspring.

(1) Birds of the World. (2020). Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

1. Size and Shape

Atlantic Puffins possess relatively short wings for their body size, which are well-adapted for both flying and swimming [1]. Their rapid wingbeats allow them to achieve speeds of up to 55 mph (88 km/h) in flight, while their powerful wings also enable them to dive underwater in pursuit of their prey. When resting, puffins often adopt a distinctive upright posture, making them easily recognizable from a distance. Atlantic Puffins have several unique adaptations that allow them to thrive in their marine environment [1]. Their waterproof feathers help insulate them from the cold water, and a layer of air trapped beneath the feathers adds buoyancy. Puffins also have a high salt tolerance, enabling them to drink seawater and excrete excess salt through specialized glands near their eyes.

(2) Harris, M.P., & Wanless, S. (2011). The Puffin. T & AD Poyser, London, UK.

2. Color Pattern

During the breeding season, Atlantic Puffins display striking colors that make them easily recognizable [1]. Their head is mostly black, with a white face and a bright, multicolored bill featuring orange, blue, and yellow hues. Their eyes are encircled by a bright orange ring, and their legs and feet are also a vivid orange color. Outside the breeding season, puffins undergo a significant transformation in their appearance [1]. Their bill becomes duller and loses its vibrant colors, with the outer plates shedding to reveal a smaller, darker bill. The face turns a darker gray, and the eye ring becomes less conspicuous. Both male and female Atlantic Puffins have similar plumage, making it difficult to distinguish between the sexes based on appearance alone [1]. Juvenile puffins are generally duller in color and have a smaller, less brightly colored bill than adults. As puffins age, their bills may show signs of wear, but their vibrant colors remain an iconic characteristic throughout their lives.

Puffins undergo an annual molt, shedding their old feathers and growing new ones [1]. This process occurs in late summer and early fall, coinciding with the transition from breeding to non-breeding plumage. Molting requires a significant amount of energy and is crucial for maintaining the bird's insulation and waterproofing. While the Atlantic Puffin is the most well-known puffin species, there are two other species of puffins: the Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and the Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) [3]. These species share some similarities in appearance, such as their brightly colored bills and black-and-white plumage, but they can be distinguished by differences in bill shape, head markings, and range.

(3) BirdLife International. (2021). Fratercula cirrhata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021.

Photo by Jonathan Cooper:

3. Behavior

Atlantic Puffins are primarily piscivorous, feeding on small fish such as herring, sand eels, and capelin [1]. They are skilled divers, capable of reaching depths of up to 200 feet (60 meters) in pursuit of their prey. Puffins use their wings to propel themselves underwater, while their feet act as rudders to navigate. They can catch multiple fish at once, holding them in their bills using specialized structures called maxillary plates, allowing them to continue hunting without dropping their catch. Atlantic Puffins are social birds that gather in large colonies during the breeding season [1]. These colonies, sometimes consisting of thousands of individuals, are lively and noisy, with puffins constantly flying to and from their burrows, interacting with their neighbors, and engaging in courtship displays. Outside of the breeding season, puffins are mostly solitary and spend their time at sea.

Puffins are monogamous, with pairs forming long-term bonds [1]. They return to the same breeding sites year after year, often reusing the same nesting burrows. Puffins dig their burrows in soil or use natural crevices in rocky cliffs for nesting. A single egg is laid per season, and both parents take turns incubating the egg and later, feeding the chick. Atlantic Puffins face numerous threats in their natural environment, including predation by gulls, skuas, and other birds [1]. On land, their eggs and chicks are vulnerable to predation by rats, foxes, and other mammals. Human disturbances, such as tourism and fishing activities, can also pose a threat to puffins, as these disruptions may lead to the abandonment of nests or the depletion of prey resources.

Atlantic Puffins are considered partial migrants, with some populations migrating long distances to their wintering grounds [1]. After the breeding season, puffins disperse from their colonies and spend the winter months at sea, often far from their nesting sites. During this time, they can be found in the North Atlantic Ocean, ranging from the waters off the east coast of North America to the waters around western Europe.

4. Habitat

Atlantic Puffins breed on rocky islands, cliffs, and coastal headlands, where they have access to suitable nesting sites [1]. They require areas with soft soil or loose rock material for digging burrows, as well as ample foraging opportunities in nearby waters. Puffin colonies can be found in various locations around the North Atlantic, including the coasts of North America, Europe, and Iceland. During the non-breeding season, Atlantic Puffins are pelagic, spending most of their time at sea [1]. They can be found in a wide range of marine environments, from shallow coastal waters to deeper offshore areas. Their distribution in winter is influenced by the availability of their preferred prey species and oceanographic conditions, such as sea surface temperature and current patterns.

Habitat loss and degradation are significant threats to the Atlantic Puffin, as human activities and climate change impact their breeding and foraging grounds [4]. Conservation efforts are focused on protecting and restoring puffin habitats, controlling invasive species that prey on puffins or compete for resources, and monitoring population trends to inform management decisions.

(4) BirdLife International. (2018). Fratercula arctica. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018.

Related: Black-capped Chickadees: ID and Overview

Photo by Marc Puddy:

Video on the Atlantic Puffin

"Taken From Blue Planet II - This bold cinematic experience takes viewers on a magical adventure across the greatest, yet least known, parts of our planet – our oceans. Since Blue Planet aired in 2001, our understanding of life beneath the waves has completely changed. Travelling from the icy polar seas to the vibrant blues of the coral atolls, this series shares these astonishing new discoveries. Meet the strange octopuses lurking in the depths of the Antarctic Ocean. Watch giant trevally fish leap to catch birds in mid-air. And ride on the back of a hammerhead shark as it attacks. Inspiring awe and wonder, Blue Planet II reveals surprising new places, charismatic new characters and extraordinary new behaviors." -

Facts about the Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffins play a crucial role in the marine ecosystem, serving as both predators and prey [1]. They help regulate fish populations by preying on small fish, while also providing a food source for larger predators such as gulls, skuas, and marine mammals. Puffins also contribute to nutrient cycling in their environment, as their guano provides essential nutrients for plant growth on coastal islands. Atlantic Puffins hold cultural significance in many of the regions where they are found, often appearing in local folklore and artwork [6]. They are a popular attraction for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts, providing valuable ecotourism opportunities for coastal communities. Puffin conservation efforts also serve as a flagship for broader marine conservation initiatives.

(5) Stirling, D. (2012). A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings: Quirky Collective Nouns of the Animal Kingdom. Ebury Press, London, UK.

(6) Couzens, D. (2008). Extreme Birds: The World's Most Extraordinary and Bizarre Birds. Firefly Books, Buffalo, NY, USA.

Ecosystem Services:

As a top predator in the marine food web, the Atlantic Puffin serves as an indicator of ecosystem health [1]. Monitoring puffin populations can provide valuable information about the status of marine resources, such as fish stocks and the overall condition of the marine environment. Puffins are particularly sensitive to changes in prey availability, making them an essential species for tracking the impacts of climate change and human activities on marine ecosystems. Atlantic Puffins are a significant draw for ecotourism, with thousands of visitors flocking to puffin colonies each year to observe and photograph these charismatic birds [7]. This influx of tourists provides valuable income for local communities, supporting businesses, such as tour operators, accommodations, and restaurants. Ecotourism centered around puffins can also raise awareness about the importance of conserving their habitats and the marine environment as a whole.

(7) Carver, L. (2014). Birdwatching Tourism in the UK. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, London, UK.

The iconic and charismatic nature of Atlantic Puffins has made them an effective ambassador for marine conservation efforts [8]. Through educational programs, such as those offered by wildlife organizations and zoological institutions, puffins can help engage the public in learning about the importance of protecting marine ecosystems and the species that inhabit them.

(8) Project Puffin. (2021). About Project Puffin. National Audubon Society. Retrieved from

The Atlantic Puffin is a captivating and unique seabird that plays a critical role in the marine ecosystem. This comprehensive exploration of the puffin's size and shape, color pattern, behavior, habitat, fascinating facts, and ecosystem services highlights the importance of conserving this remarkable species and its habitats. As we continue to learn more about the Atlantic Puffin and the challenges it faces, we can work together to ensure the survival of this iconic bird and the countless other species that depend on healthy marine ecosystems.

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