Bessie Ellen loves puffins so much that this year we have moved to start voyages earlier in Scotland just so we can see more of them during the breeding season. We will be visiting Canna, Lunga and Shiants to see both the puffin and guillemot in their millions, as they feed and nurture their young on these remote cliffs.
Photo courtesy of G Hudson
Atlantic puffins, dubbed “sea parrots’, are small seabirds that belong to the Auk family and sport large, brightly-colored beaks on their substantially-sized heads.
For most of the year, Atlantic puffins live on the open ocean, with a range spanning from the eastern coast of Canada and the northern United States to the western coast of Europe and northern Russia.
Puffins are specially adapted to living on the open sea. Waterproof feathers allow them stay warm as they float at the ocean’s surface or swim underwater. Diving as deep as 60 m (200 ft.), they swim by flapping their wings as if flying through the water and use their feet to steer. There, they hunt herring, hake, capelin, and sand eels. Atlantic puffins are also excellent fliers. Flapping their wings at up to 400 beats per minute, puffins can reach speeds of 88 km/h (55mph).
April to mid-August is breeding season for puffins. When a puffin is around 3-5 years old, it will choose a partner at sea to mate with for life.
It is thought that the birds’ colorful bills and feet, which fade in the winter and brighten in the spring, help puffins assess potential mates.
Puffins create burrows, about 90 cm (3 ft.), in rocky cliffs either in the soil or between rocks. Often, couples will return to the same burrow year after year. At the back of the burrow, they build a nest lined with grasses, seaweed, and feathers. After the female lays a single egg, both parents take turn incubating the egg for about 40 days.
Once the chick hatches, the mother and father will take turns bringing it fish to eat several times a day. Atlantic puffins have the ability to carry several fish in their beaks at one time. They push the fish to the back of their mouth with their tongue, where ridges at the top of their bill secure the fish in place. This allows puffins to keep their mouth open to catch more fish without losing any in the process. In general, they can hold around 10 fish in their beak at once.
With 6 million alive today, Atlantic puffins are not endangered. But some populations have been drastically reduced. Puffin colonies are threatened by overfishing, which causes a shortage of food for adults to feed their young.