Atlantic Puffin

Unlocking the World of the Atlantic Puffin: A Comprehensive Guide for Bird Lovers

A puffin with its wings outstretched stands on a grassy ledge

If you are fascinated by the colorful and charismatic seabirds known as Atlantic puffins, you are not alone. These amazing animals have captured the hearts and minds of many people around the world, thanks to their striking appearance, remarkable adaptations, and intriguing behavior.

In this comprehensive guide, you will learn everything you need to know about Atlantic puffins, from their biology and ecology to their conservation and threats.

You will also discover some of the best places to see them in their natural habitat, and how you can help protect them for future generations. 

Whether you are a novice or an expert, this guide will enrich your knowledge and appreciation of these wonderful birds, and inspire you to explore the world of the Atlantic puffin.

Getting to Know the Atlantic Puffin: Characteristics & Common Traits

The Atlantic Puffin is a unique seabird that captures the imagination of bird watchers. With its colorful beak, speedy flying abilities, and underwater talents, the Atlantic Puffin has many cool traits!

Atlantic Puffin / Fratercula Arctica: An Overview

The Atlantic Puffin’s scientific name is Fratercula arctica. These medium-sized seabirds average about 10 inches tall and weigh around 17.5 ounces. They live along the coasts and islands of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Some key things to know about the Atlantic Puffin:

  • Lives at sea most of its life
  • Can dive underwater up to 200 feet to catch small fish
  • Flies up to 55 miles per hour through the air
  • Atlantic Puffin colonies can have thousands of birds

Analyzing the Physical Features of the Atlantic Puffin: Beak, Plumage, and Webbed Feet

the Physical Features of the Atlantic Puffin
The Physical Features of the Atlantic Puffin

The Atlantic Puffin has very unique physical features that help it thrive in its ocean habitat.


  • Large and colorful
  • Changes from gray to bright orange as the bird matures
  • Used for catching fish underwater


  • Black and white feathers on its body
  • Dense plumage keeps puffin warm even in frigid water

Webbed Feet

  • Webbing between its toes helps propel the puffin underwater
  • Uses feet to steer direction when swimming

The Atlantic Puffin’s Scientific Name and Its Significance

The Atlantic Puffin’s genus name Fratercula comes from Latin meaning “little brother.” This references how the Atlantic Puffin was seen as the smaller relative of similar puffin species.

Its species name arctica signifies that this puffin lives in Arctic climates. Put together, the scientific name classifies it as the smaller Arctic puffin compared to other varieties.

Why the Atlantic Puffin is Often Referred to as the “Clown of the Sea”

With its brightly colored beak, waddling walk, and clumsy landings, the Atlantic Puffin has some funny quirks on full display. This had led people to affectionately call puffins the “clowns of the sea.”

They make people smile with their clown-like behaviors. But they are also quite skilled at flying through the air and diving into the ocean, showing they have some serious talents too!

Understanding the Multicolored Bill of the Atlantic Puffin

One of the Atlantic Puffin’s most distinctive features is its unique bill. It changes colors dramatically as the bird ages.

Baby Puffins

  • Grayish colored bill

Adolescent Puffins

  • Gray bill slowly transitions to orange

Mature Puffins

  • Vibrant orange bill with yellow and red tones
  • Used as a sign of maturity to attract mates

The Atlantic Puffin’s bill is a handy identification tool. The brightly colored mature bills inspired one of the puffin’s nicknames – “sea parrot”!

The Breeding Life of Atlantic Puffins: Behavior and Habitats

Atlantic Puffins have very unique breeding behaviors and nesting habits. Read on to learn all about how puffins find love, raise their chicks, and build specialized nests each year.

Insights into the Atlantic Puffin’s Breeding Season

The Atlantic Puffin’s breeding season lines up with the warmer months. They start arriving at their island and coastal breeding colonies between spring and early summer.

Once at the breeding site, Atlantic Puffins participate in elaborate mating rituals. Males will flick their heads rapidly and grunt to attract females. If a bond is formed, pairs preen each other and rub their colorful bills affectionately.

Atlantic Puffin’s Nests and Breeding Sites: An Inside Look

Nest Location

  • Puffins nest in colonies on small, rocky islands with short vegetation, typically on steep cliffs or in the turf soil at the tops of cliffs.
  • In some northern colonies, they nest in crevices between rocks or beneath boulders.
  • In Maine specifically, puffins nest on 7 islands, with the largest colonies on Matinicus Rock, Eastern Egg Rock, and Seal Island. There is also a large colony on Machias Seal Island on the Maine-New Brunswick border.

Nest Structure

  • Puffins dig burrows or shallow holes into the ground with their bills and feet to make their nests.
  • The burrows are usually 3-7 feet long, and sometimes have side branches leading to multiple nest chambers.
  • The nest chamber has a sparse lining of grass, feathers or other materials.

Breeding Behavior

  • Both sexes help excavate the burrow and care for the single egg and chick.
  • Chicks (“pufflings”) are fed whole fish by the parents and fledge in about 6 weeks.
  • After fledging, the young puffins spend years at sea before returning to breed at age 4-6 years.

Puffins nest in dense colonies on remote, rocky islands in burrows they dig themselves. Both parents care for the egg and chick until the puffling fledges and swims out to sea, not to return for several years until mature enough to breed.

Year After Year: Why Puffins Mate for Life

Atlantic Puffins are monogamous birds, meaning they mate for life. Pairs reunite year after year, often returning to the exact same nesting site.

This lifelong bond is displayed through mating rituals like bill rubbing. Their loyalty helps pairs work together to incubate eggs, feed chicks, and protect the nest.

Puffin Chicks: The Delicate First Steps of Life

Female Atlantic Puffins usually lay just one egg per year. Both parents take turns keeping the egg warm for around 39-42 days until it hatches.

Once born, the chick is fed small fish carried in the parent’s beak. After about 6 weeks, chicks leave the nest by night and fly solo out to sea to start life on their own.

How the Atlantic Puffin Builds and Utilizes Its Nest Chamber

Atlantic Puffin pairs work together to dig out and shape their underground nest chambers. This protected space keeps eggs and chicks safe.

The birds use their beaks, feet, and claws to excavate living space in the soil or rocky crevices. Nest interiors may be lined with grass and feathers for extra comfort and insulation.

The chamber is essential for providing a stable environment to incubate eggs and shelter newly hatched chicks as they grow. After fledging season, the birds abandon the burrows until the next year’s breeding cycle begins.

A Glimpse into Puffin Colonies: Their Roles in Puffin Life

Atlantic puffins are highly social seabirds that nest in large colonies numbering in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs. These colonies form on remote, rocky islands across the North Atlantic and provide puffins with safe nesting sites and protection from predators.

Understanding the Social Structure within Puffin Colonies

  • Puffins that nest together in a colony are very social with one another. They communicate using various calls and displays.
  • Established pairs return to the same burrow year after year to breed and raise their single chick.
  • Young puffins spend several years visiting colonies before they are ready to breed around age 5.
  • Colonies provide mating opportunities for non-breeding and widowed puffins.

Rough Terrains: The Rocky Islands Known as Puffin Nesting Sites

Atlantic puffin colonies are located on small, rocky islands that are mostly uninhabited by humans. Popular nesting spots include:

  • Coastal islands off Maine, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Scotland, Ireland
  • Islands with steep, grassy cliffs and boulder slopes provide the ideal terrain for puffins to dig their burrows
  • Remote locations away from mainland predators

Atlantic Puffins’ Winter Habits: From Open Ocean to Nest

  • In the winter months, Atlantic puffins spend their time far out at sea in the North Atlantic.
  • They return to land in March or April to reunite with their mate at the same burrow and breeding site.
  • Puffin colonies bustle with activity during spring and summer as mated pairs incubate eggs, feed chicks, and prepare the next generation for life at sea.

How Puffin Colonies Survive and Thrive in the North Atlantic

  • Colonies ensure puffin survival by providing safety in numbers from aerial predators like gulls and falcons.
  • Nesting in cavities under boulders or in deep burrows helps protect eggs and chicks.
  • Social interactions, mating, raising chicks are key features of colonies.
  • Abundant food sources nearby allow adults to provision growing chicks.

The Global Population of Atlantic Puffin: A Concern for Conservation

The global population of Atlantic puffins is estimated between 12-14 million individuals. However, many colonies have been declining in recent decades due to:

  • Loss of nesting habitat
  • Lack of prey fish from overfishing and climate change
  • Disturbance from humans
  • Oil spills
  • Introduced predators

Protecting existing and restoring old Atlantic puffin colonies is a conservation priority to ensure the future survival of these remarkable seabirds. Their fate depends on sustaining productive breeding sites across their North Atlantic range.

What Sets the Atlantic Puffin Apart: Comparisons with Penguins and Parrots

The Atlantic puffin is a highly distinctive seabird that lives across the North Atlantic. With its colorful triangular bill, black and white plumage, and superior diving abilities, the puffin has often been compared to penguins and parrots. However, the Atlantic puffin possesses many unique adaptations for its pelagic lifestyle.

Atlantic Puffin vs Penguin: A Detailed Comparative Study

While puffins may bear a superficial resemblance to penguins, they actually belong to different bird families and have key differences:

  • Taxonomy: Puffins are auks in the Alcidae family while penguins belong to Spheniscidae
  • Flight: Puffins can flap their wings to fly up to 88 km/hr; penguins have flippers and cannot fly
  • Habitat: Puffins nest on rocky islands and spend winters on the open ocean; penguins live on land and sea ice
  • Bill Shape: Puffins have laterally compressed bills used to catch small fish; penguins have pointed bills to catch krill

Exploring Parrot-like Features in the Atlantic Puffin

Beyond penguins, puffins share some similarities with parrots:

  • Triangular, colorful bill shape
  • Ability to grasp food and other items between top and bottom bill
  • Nest in cavities on vertical cliffs in large, noisy colonies
  • Mate for life and exhibit high site fidelity year after year

However, puffins swim underwater and have a saltwater tolerance parrots lack.

How the Atlantic Puffin Has Adapted in Ocean Waters Like Many Seabirds

Key adaptations that allow the Atlantic puffin to thrive as a pelagic seabird include:

  • Waterproof feathers to retain body heat while floating on waves
  • Strong wings to “fly” underwater while hunting fish
  • Webbed feet to steer through the water column down to 200 ft depths
  • Salt glands to excrete excess salt from drinking seawater
  • Durable claws to cling to rocky crevices and burrows on land

Triangular Beak: More than Just a Resemblance Between Puffins and Parrots?

The Atlantic puffin’s distinct bill shape serves multiple functions:

  • Hooked tip and sharp inner edges help catch and grasp slippery fish
  • Bright colors signal fitness to potential mates during breeding season
  • Holds piles of fish crosswise when provisioning chicks in the burrow
  • Sheds and regrows before/after winter to maintain sensitivity

Unique Flight Mechanism of Puffins: A Closer Look at Their Flap

To achieve remarkable flight speeds, Atlantic puffins have evolved:

  • Short, stiff wings that enable a rapid wingbeat of 400 beats per minute
  • Strong chest muscles to power energetic flapping over long distances
  • An aerodynamic body profile to cut through the air
  • An exceptional sense of direction when migrating across thousands of miles of open ocean

In short, the Atlantic puffin is a highly specialized seabird filled with unique adaptations that allow it to thrive in the marine environment of the North Atlantic.

Feeding Habits: Getting Acquainted with the Atlantic Puffin’s Food Supply

The Atlantic puffin is a highly specialized fish-eating seabird found across the North Atlantic. To sustain their energetic lifestyle hunting fish offshore and provisioning chicks, puffins have evolved unique adaptations for catching and carrying large quantities of small fish.

Atlantic Puffin’s Diet: The Importance of Herring, Sand Eels, and Other Small Fish

Atlantic Puffins Fish Food Supply
Atlantic Puffins Fish Food Supply
  • Puffins feed almost exclusively on small schooling fish like herring, sand lance, capelin, sprat, and hake
  • These nutrient-rich forage fish provide the high-energy food puffins need
  • Fish make up over 90% of a puffin’s diet; they supplement with some crustaceans and mollusks
  • Diet varies between colonies and seasons depending on local prey abundance

Forage Fish and Their Crucial Role in Puffin’s Survival

  • Forage fish are critical to puffins successfully raising chicks each summer
  • Their numbers fluctuate yearly – lack of fish causes breeding failures
  • Overfishing, climate change, pollution threaten forage fish stocks
  • Protecting fish populations is key to preserving puffins

The Unique Hunting Technique of Atlantic Puffins Underwater

Atlantic puffins have evolved superb diving and swimming skills to catch fast fish:

  • Use wings to “fly” underwater up to 200 ft deep
  • Swiftly pursue fish with webbed feet steering
  • Grip slippery prey crosswise in triangular bill
  • Carry up to 10-20 fish at once back to nest

How the Puffin Returns with a Beak Full: Secrets of their Catching Technique

  • Special backward-facing spines on the tongue and roof of the mouth
  • Prevent fish from sliding out when carrying piles crosswise
  • Allows puffin parents to provision a single chick with up to 10-20 fish per day

Young Birds Learning to Feed: The Role of Adult Puffins

  • Chicks fed fish directly by parents at first
  • Then parents demonstrate catching and dropping fish
  • Fledglings venture out to sea and spend 2-3 years perfecting fishing and flying skills before breeding
  • Survival depends on the next generation mastering the complex feeding behaviors passed on at colonies

The Atlantic puffin’s unique adaptations allow it to exploit its specialized fish diet. Protecting that vital food supply is crucial to preserving puffins across their North Atlantic breeding grounds.