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What is a Puffin?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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A puffin is a seabird in the genus Fratercula. Puffins are found in the North Atlantic, the Baltic, and parts of the Mediterranean, with four recognized puffin species known to be living today. The most famous feature of the puffin is probably its stout triangular beak, which turns a vivid red, orange, or yellow during mating season.

The horned, tufted, and Atlantic puffins are probably the most recognized representatives of this branch of the auk family. The Rhinocerous Auklet is also considered a puffin species, despite the fact that its common name lacks the term “puffin.” Fossil evidence suggests that there were probably more puffin species at one time.

Puffins are around the size of a carton of orange juice, with sleek black and white plumage which reminded many early biologists of the robes worn by monks. This resemblance explains the scientific name for the puffin, which means “little brother,” a play on words referencing the “brothers” who belonged to monastic orders. Puffins have very stout, stocky bodies and they tend to be rather ungainly on land, with many birds hopping to get around in a manner which looks quite comical.

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In the water, however, the body of the puffin makes sense. These birds are very skilled swimmers and divers, and their plump bodies keep them insulated from the cold of Northern waters. Puffins are also quite graceful in flight, with many birds ranging across great distances in the search for shelter and food. In addition to being good swimmers and fliers, these squat birds are also talented diggers, constructing burrows to nest in during the mating season.

Male and female puffins tend to form long-term bonds with each other, laying a single egg a year and incubating it in an insulated burrow. Once the egg hatches, both parents bring back food for the chick. Puffins actually carry small fish in their beaks, rather than partially digesting food and regurgitating it for the chick. Once the chick appears to be thriving, the parents leave it on its own, and the chick matures for several more weeks before venturing out of the burrow.

Puffins do not mate until five to seven years of age, using the intervening time to scope out potential nesting sites and explore their environment. When puffins meet their mates, the courtship ritual includes a complicated series of beak tappings, with the birds also vocalizing to communicate with each other. In the wild, puffins can live around 20 years, while some captive puffins have lived into their 30s, thanks to a lack of predators.

Puffins are not considered endangered, but their range has shrunk substantially. Humans have historically hunted puffins, and they also compete with these birds for fish. Some puffin populations have been forced out by more aggressive birds introduced by people, while others have suffered from diseases. Concern for the puffin and other sea birds has led many nations to establish protected sanctuaries for marine birds.

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