At a glance

The Atlantic puffin is a comical looking bird sometimes nicknamed the “sea parrot” or “clown of the sea”. It has a chunky body with short wings, and a large, colourful bill with serrated edges capable of holding up to 30 fish. It is a highly sociable bird forming colonies of many thousands. However, in recent years breeding failures has seen the population decline and it has been assessed as vulnerable and at risk of global extinction.

Key facts

Scientific name: Fratercula arctica
Status: Breeding summer visitor

Breeding pairs: 580,000

Conservation status: Red

Family: Auks

Length: 26 – 29 cm
Wingspan: 47 – 65 cm
Weight: 460 g
Typical lifespan: 18 years

What do puffins look like?

In breeding season adult puffins have black upperparts and dusky underwings. On the underparts the belly and vent is white.

On the head, the forehead, crown, and nape are black with a black collar above the breast. The face is grey and white and there is a small black patch above and below the eye and a fine black line that extends to the nape.

The distinctive triangular-shaped bill is bulky with horny ridges on the upper mandible that are striped bright orange, blue, and yellow. The bill curves slightly downwards. The eyes are brown with a red eye-ring, and the legs and webbed feet are bright orange.

In winter, the plumage is duller tinged with grey on the upperparts and the white belly turns grey. The face is dark grey with darker marks around the eyes. The bill sheds its outer horny plates and is smaller and thinner and grey in colour. The legs and feet are duller turning yellowish.

Male and female puffins are similar.

Juveniles look like adults but are smaller and have a duller bill with fewer horny plates which give it a long, pointed shape. The legs and feet are duller and pink.

How do puffins breed?

Puffins nest in colonies and are highly territorial. They produce one brood a season. Both adults build the nest in a burrow in the loose soil at the top of a cliff or island. They use their bills and feet to excavate the soil and line the nest chamber at the end of the burrow with dry grasses, feathers, seaweed, and leaves.

Puffins lay a single white egg with brown or pale purple spots which is incubated by both parents for 35-45 days taking turns of about 30 hours each. At hatching the chick is covered in dark brown down. Both parents feed it for about 40 days when it will return to the sea and begin to dive for fish. It can fly 10 days later and reaches sexual maturity at 5 years.

What do puffins eat?

Puffins eat mostly fish but will also supplement their diet with small crustaceans and squid during late summer. Chicks are fed exclusively on fish.


Where can I see puffins ?

Puffins arrive to breed in the UK during March and April. They are found on coastal colonies around much of the UK except the south and east. They leave in August although some remain in the North Sea over winter.

What do puffins sound like?

david m/xeno-canto

Did you know?

Although puffins are good fliers and can reach speeds of nearly 90 km/h, they find landing difficult and will crash land into a wave crest of do a belly-flop on to a smoother surface of water.

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