Know Your Puffins

a graphic depicting the four species of puffins
Did you know there are four different species of puffins? These dapper birds all live in the Northern Hemisphere and spend lots of time at sea. The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) is the only puffin to live in the Atlantic Ocean, while the remaining three live in the Pacific Ocean. (Smithsonian Institution)

While penguins reign as the most dapper black and white marine birds in the Southern Hemisphere, in the north that distinction goes to the puffins. Puffins are a group of marine birds distinguished by black, dark grey, or black and white, plumage and a vibrantly colored beak. The four puffins are the Tufted Puffin, the Horned Puffin, the Atlantic Puffin, and the Rhinoceros Auklet. They are members of the Alcidae family, more commonly known as the auks. Like many marine birds, puffins spend much of their time at sea foraging on fish and return to the coast to nest and raise chicks. Because they are entirely dependent on marine food resources, their future is most threatened by global warming of ocean waters which is already disrupting their food supply chain. After several years maturing at sea, puffins will return to the same nesting colony where they were born to pair up and mate. They were named puffins due to the “puff” ball appearance, which was first noted in a detailed description of the Atlantic puffin species in 1570. Their rotund appearance was also the inspiration for their scientific name. With their dark cape and fat belly the birds looked like overweight medieval friars and so they were dubbed the “little friars of the sea” or Fratercula marina.  Puffins are also known as the “clown of the ocean” and the “sea parrot” due to their colorful facial markings.   

There are four species of true puffins, three of which are grouped in the Fratercula genus, and a fourth (Rhinocerous Auklet) that often gets forgotten because it was misnamed many years ago. While the Fratercula puffins have similar broad, colorful beaks and black upper bodies, the Rhinoceros Auklet has a smaller, less dramatic bill and is mostly gray in color. However, all four species are ecologically similar, for example, they all “fly” underwater to catch small schooling fish, carry loads of small fish in their bills to feed chicks, nest underground, and raise just one chick at a time.  While the Rhinoceros Auklet was mistakenly classified as a member of the Auklet tribe of Alcids, recent genetic studies not only confirmed it is a puffin, they show that the three Fratercula puffins actually evolved from an earlier Rhinoceros Auklet ancestor.  Ironically, the Rhinoceros Auklet was the original puffin! 

Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)

a side view of a tufted puffin sitting in tall, flowering grass
A Tufted Puffin sits by its nest in Alaska. (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Named for the vibrant yellow tuft of feathers that crowns its head during breeding season, the Tufted Puffin is the largest in the group. This puffin lives in the Northeast Pacific, from southern California to the Arctic Alaska, and to Russia and Japan in the Western Pacific. Their largest colonies are in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.  Most birds dig their burrows in dense soil, where they raise their chicks in the summer months. They feed on more than 50 species of prey, and dive deeper than any other puffin, as much as 350 feet deep. Once the chicks learn to fly, they head to sea, returning three or more years later to nest themselves. Most birds leave Alaska after nesting, and overwinter in the vast open waters of the Central North Pacific. 

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

A puffin with a mouthful of fish.
Atlantic puffins have spiny tongues that, pressed against the roof of their mouths, help to hold ten or more small forage fish at once without losing any along the way. (Steve Garvie, Flickr)

The smallest of the puffins, the Atlantic Puffin is also the only species in the family to live in the Atlantic Ocean. They can be found from Maine up to Newfoundland and Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom, Spain, Norway and Russia, though about half of the entire global population nests in Iceland. Atlantic Puffins were heavily hunted in the United States and by the early 1900s, no nesting colonies remained. Ornithologist Stephen Kress helped re-establish the Maine colony on Eastern Rock during the 1970s and 1980s by transplanting chicks from Newfoundland and using decoy birds to lure the fledglings back once they matured. Due to his work and the work of others there are now several colonies on various Maine islands. 

Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata)

a horned puffin sits among the rocks with its feet tucked under its belly
The Horned Puffin is known for its striking bill. (Kurt Edblom via Flickr)

The Horned Puffin is named for the black spike that extends above the eye in breeding adults. These birds nest among the many islands found along Gulf of Alaska coast and Aleutian Islands and along the coast of Russia. They feed on shelf waters within about 50 miles of their coastal colonies, but in winter they migrate far from shore in the Central Pacific Ocean. A few have even washed up on Hawaii beaches! They are expert swimmers, and often dive to depths of around 100 feet (30 m), though they can reach depths closer to 250 feet (76 m). Horned Puffins dig dens in the earth just like other puffins, but also often nest in rocky talus slopes or in crevices along cliffs. 

Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata)

a rhinoceros auklet with dark grey feathers and a white spike on its bill floats in the water
The Rhinoceros Auklet is the fourth, and often forgotten, puffin. (Eric Ellingson via Flickr)

Somewhat different from its puffin sisters, the Rhinoceros Auklet was initially named because of its adornment with striking facial plumes like it’s cousin auklets. Though it does lack a triangular, flashy bill, it actually has its own striking adornment—a single horn atop its bill that is fluorescent and likely used to communicate while mating. These birds live along the western coast of North America and the eastern coast of Asia, nesting on the coastal islands of Alaska and Canada in the summer. The Rhinoceros Auklet is the only member of the puffin family that is nocturnal at the colony, and only feeds its’ chicks at night. Recent discussions within the birding community propose changing the common name to the Rhinoceros Puffin, though an official change has yet to be made. They have also been called the Horn-billed Puffin and the Unicorn Puffin.

April 2022