Last updated

Temporal range: PleistoceneHolocene, 0.1–0  Ma
Puffin (Fratercula arctica) with lesser sand eels (Ammodytes tobianus).jpg
Atlantic puffin (F. arctica) with lesser sand eels (Ammodytes tobianus), on Skomer Island
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Tribe: Fraterculini
Genus: Fratercula
Brisson, 1760
Type species
Alca arctica

F. arctica
F. cirrhata
F. corniculata
F. dowi


SagmatorrhinaBonaparte, 1851

Puffins are any of three species of small alcids (auks) in the bird genus Fratercula. These are pelagic seabirds that feed primarily by diving in the water. They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil. Two species, the tufted puffin and horned puffin, are found in the North Pacific Ocean, while the Atlantic puffin is found in the North Atlantic Ocean.


All puffin species have predominantly black or black and white plumage, a stocky build, and large beaks that get brightly colored during the breeding season. They shed the colorful outer parts of their bills after the breeding season, leaving a smaller and duller beak. Their short wings are adapted for swimming with a flying technique underwater. In the air, they beat their wings rapidly (up to 400 times per minute) [1] in swift flight, often flying low over the ocean's surface.


The genus Fratercula was introduced by the French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson in 1760 with the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) as the type species. [2] [3] The name Fratercula is Latin for "little brother", a reference to the black and white plumage, which resembles monastic robes. [4]

The English name "puffin" – puffed in the sense of swollen – was originally applied to the fatty, salted meat of young birds of the unrelated Manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus), formerly known as the "Manks puffin". [5] Puffin is an Anglo-Norman word (Middle English pophyn or poffin) for the cured carcasses of nestling Manx shearwaters. [6]

The genus contain three species. [7] The rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) has sometimes been included in the genus Fratercula, [8] and some authors place the tufted puffin in the genus Lunda. [9] The puffins and the rhinoceros auklet are closely related, together composing the subfamily Fraterculini. [10]

The oldest alcid fossil is Hydrotherikornis from Oregon dating to the Late Eocene while fossils of Aethia and Uria go back to the Late Miocene. Molecular clocks have been used to suggest an origin in the Pacific in the Paleocene. [11] Fossils from North Carolina were originally thought to have been of two Fratercula species, [12] but were later reassigned to one Fratercula, the tufted puffin, and a Cerorhinca species. [13] Another extinct species, Dow's puffin (Fratercula dowi) was found on the Channel Islands of California until the Late Pleistocene or early Holocene. [10]

A Tufted puffin in Seattle, Washington Puffin Mrkoww.jpg
A Tufted puffin in Seattle, Washington

The Fraterculini are thought to have originated in the Pacific primarily because of their greater diversity there; there is only one extant species in the Atlantic, compared to two in the Pacific. This species has shown some significant signs of animal intelligence. [14] On January, 2020, some researchers reported that, Atlantic puffins were seen using sticks as a tool to scratch themselves. [15] The Fraterculini fossil record in the Pacific extends at least as far back as the middle Miocene, with three fossil species of Cerorhinca, and material tentatively referred to that genus, in the middle Miocene to late Pliocene of southern California and northern Mexico. Although there no records from the Miocene in the Atlantic, a re-examination of the North Carolina material indicated that the diversity of puffins in the early Pliocene was as great in the Atlantic as it is in the Pacific today. This diversity was achieved through influxes of puffins from the Pacific; the later loss of species was due to major oceanographic changes in the late Pliocene due to closure of the Panamanian Seaway and the onset of severe glacial cycles in the North Atlantic. [13]


The puffins are stocky, short-winged, and short-tailed birds, with black upper parts and white or brownish-grey underparts. The head has a black cap, the face is mainly white, and the feet are orange-red. The bill appears large and colorful during the breeding season. The colorful outer part of the bill is shed after the breeding season, revealing a smaller and duller true bill beneath. [16]

Although the puffins are vocal at their breeding colonies, they are silent at sea. They fly relatively high above the water, typically 10 m (33 ft) as compared with the 1.6 m (5.2 ft) of other auks. [17]

Species details

Species in taxonomic sequence
Common and binomial namesImageDescriptionRange
Atlantic puffin
(Fratercula arctica)
Puffin (Fratercula arctica).jpg
32 cm (13 in) long, with a 53 cm (21 in) wingspan, weight 380 g (13 oz). [17] North Atlantic: coasts of northern Europe south to northern France, the British Isles, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Norway and Atlantic Canada then south to Maine. Winters south to Morocco and New York [18]
Horned puffin
(Fratercula corniculata)
Fratercula corniculataUSFWSSL0002774.jpg
38 cm (15 in) long, with a 58 cm (23 in) wingspan, weight 620 g (1.37 lb). [17] North Pacific: coasts of Siberia, Alaska and British Columbia, wintering south to California and Baja California [19]
Tufted puffin or crested puffin [20]
(Fratercula cirrhata)
38 cm (15 in) long, with a 63.5 cm (25.0 in) wingspan, weight 780 g (1.72 lb). [17] North Pacific: British Columbia, throughout southeastern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, Kamchatka, the Kuril Islands and throughout the Sea of Okhotsk. Winters south to Honshū and California [9]



Atlantic puffin, Lundy, UK
Atlantic puffins on the Faroe Islands Klippen.jpg
Atlantic puffins on the Faroe Islands

Puffins breed in colonies on coasts and islands; several current or former island breeding sites are referred to as Puffin Island. The male Atlantic puffin builds the nest and exhibits strong nest-site fidelity. Both sexes of the horned puffin help to construct their nest. Horned puffin burrows are usually about 1 meter (3.3 feet) deep, ending in a chamber, while the tunnel leading to a tufted puffin burrow may be up to 2.75 meters (9.0 feet) long. The nesting substrate of the tufted and Atlantic puffins is soft soil, into which tunnels are dug; in contrast, the nesting sites of horned puffins are rock crevices on cliffs. [21] The Atlantic puffin burrow is usually lined with material such as grass, leaves, and feathers but is occasionally unlined. The eggs of the Atlantic puffin are typically creamy white but the occasional egg is tinged lilac.

Where rabbits breed, sometimes Atlantic puffins breed in rabbit burrows.

Puffins form long-term pair bonds or relationships. The female lays a single egg, and both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick (or "puffling" [22] [23] ). The incubating parent holds the egg against its brood patch with its wings. The chicks fledge at night. After fledging, the chicks spend the first few years of their lives at sea, returning to breed about five years later. Puffins in captivity have been known to breed as early as three years of age.

After breeding, all three puffin species winter at sea, usually far from coasts and often extending south of the breeding range. [16]

Iceland is the home to most of the Atlantic puffins with about 10 million individuals. [24] The largest single puffin colony in the world is in the Westmann Isles of Iceland. In 2009, scientists estimated the number of nests to be 1.1 million, [25] and number of individuals there is estimated to be up to 4 million. [24]


Atlantic puffin with fish Atlantic Puffin - Farne Is - FJ0A4842 (35937180110).jpg
Atlantic puffin with fish

Like many auks, puffins eat both fish and zooplankton but feed their chicks primarily with small marine fish several times a day. The prey species of the Atlantic puffin include the sandeel, herring and capelin. [26] [27] The puffins are distinct in their ability to hold several (sometimes over a dozen) small fish at a time, crosswise in their bill, rather than regurgitating swallowed fish. This allows them to take longer foraging trips since they can come back with more food energy for their chick than a bird that can only carry one fish at a time. This behavior is made possible by the unique hinging mechanism of their beak, which allows the upper and lower biting edges to meet at any of a number of angles.

In 2019, animal experts observed puffins, in two separate geographic locations, using sticks to scratch themselves indicating that the seabirds have a basic ability to use tools. [28] [29]

Relationships with humans


Puffins are hunted for eggs, feathers and meat. Atlantic puffin populations drastically declined due to habitat destruction and exploitation during the 19th century and early 20th century. They continue to be hunted in Iceland and the Faroe Islands. [30]

The Blasket Islands off the Irish coast of County Kerry saw a serious decline due to harvesting. Until the islands were abandoned in 1953, the islanders often lived just above starvation level. As a result, the puffins were hunted in large numbers for food.

The Atlantic puffin forms part of the national diet in Iceland, where the species does not have legal protection. Puffins are hunted by a technique called "sky fishing", which involves catching the puffins in a large net as they dive into the sea. Their meat is commonly featured on hotel menus. The fresh heart of a puffin is eaten raw as a traditional Icelandic delicacy. [31] On the small Icelandic island of Grimsey as many as 200 puffins can be caught in a single morning. [32]

The name of the English island Lundy is believed to come from the old Norse word for "puffin island" (Lundey), [33] although an alternative explanation has been suggested with Lund referring to a copse, or wooded area. [34]

The Atlantic puffin is the provincial bird of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.


  1. "Puffin FAQs: 26 Questions About Puffins". Project Puffin. National Audubon Society. Archived from the original on 2012-08-29.
  2. Brisson, Mathurin Jacques (1760). Ornithologie, ou, Méthode Contenant la Division des Oiseaux en Ordres, Sections, Genres, Especes & leurs Variétés (in French and Latin). Paris: Jean-Baptiste Bauche. Vol. 1, p. 52, Vol. 6, p. 81.
  3. Peters, James Lee, ed. (1934). Check-list of Birds of the World. Volume 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 358.|volume= has extra text (help)
  4. Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p.  164. ISBN   978-1-4081-2501-4.
  5. Lockwood, W. B. (1993). The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names. Oxford University Press. p. 100. ISBN   978-0-19-866196-2.
  6. "Puffin" . Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  7. Gill, Frank; Donsker, David, eds. (2019). "Noddies, gulls, terns, auks". World Bird List Version 9.2. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
  8. Barrows, Walter Bradford (1877). "Catalogue of the Alcidae contained in the Museum of the Boston Society of Natural History, with a Review and proposed Classification of the Family". Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History. 19: 154 via Biodiversity Heritage Library.
  9. 1 2 Harrison (1988) p. 406
  10. 1 2 Guthrie, Daniel A.; Thomas, Howell W.; Kennedy, George L. (1999). "A new species of extinct late Pleistocene puffin (Aves: Alcidae) from the southern California Channel Islands" (PDF). Proceedings of the 5th California Islands Symposium: 525–530.
  11. Pereira, Sergio L.; Baker, Allan J. (2008). "DNA evidence for a Paleocene origin of the Alcidae (Aves: Charadriiformes) in the Pacific and multiple dispersals across northern oceans". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 46 (2): 430–445. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2007.11.020. PMID   18178108.
  12. Olson, S. L.; Rasmussen P. (2001) "Miocene and Pliocene birds from the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina." Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology90 233-–365.
  13. 1 2 Smith, N. A.; Olson, Storrs L.; Clarke, J. A. (2007). "First Atlantic Record of the Horned Puffin genus Cerorhinca (Aves, Alcidae) from the Pliocene of North Carolina" (PDF). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 27 (4): 1039–1042. doi:10.1671/0272-4634(2007)27[1039:FAROTP]2.0.CO;2. ISSN   0272-4634.
  14. Fayet, Annette L.; Hansen, Erpur Snær; Biro, Dora (2019-12-30). "Evidence of tool use in a seabird". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117 (3): 1277–1279. doi:10.1073/pnas.1918060117. ISSN   0027-8424. PMC   6983420 . PMID   31889002.
  15. Tracey, Liz (2020-02-02). "Puffins Seen Using Tools, Breaking Dumb-Puffin Stereotypes". JSTOR Daily. Retrieved 2020-02-02.
  16. 1 2 Harrison (1988) pp. 404–406
  17. 1 2 3 4 Sibley (2000) pp.252–253
  18. Harrison (1988) p.404
  19. Harrison (1988) p.405
  20. "Tufted Puffin" is the preferred English name. F. Gill and M. Wright, Birds of the World: Recommended English Names , 2006.
  21. Piatt, John F; Kitaysky, Alexander S. (2002). A. Poole (ed.). "Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata)" . The Birds of North America Online. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. doi:10.2173/bna.603 . Retrieved 1 April 2009.
  22. "Kids patrol to help lost puffins". CBBC . British Broadcasting Corporation. September 3, 2009. Retrieved 26 February 2013.
  23. Enright, Michael (December 30, 2018) [2011]. The Sunday Edition - December 30, 2018 (Radio interview). CBC. Event occurs at 48:00.
  24. 1 2
  25. Baillie SM & Jones IL 2004. The response of Atlantic puffin Fratercula arctica to a decline in capelin Mallotus villosus abundance at the Gannet Islands, Labrador in the late 1990s. Waterbirds 78(1): 102-111 PDF
  26. Simon P. R. Greenstreet, Eric Armstrong, Henrik Mosegaard, Henrik Jensen, Iain M. Gibb, Helen M. Fraser, Beth E. Scott, Gayle J. Holland, and Jonathan Sharples (2006) Variation in the abundance of sand eels Ammodytes marinus off southeast Scotland: an evaluation of area-closure fisheries management and stock abundance assessment methods. ICES J. Mar Sci. 63: 1530–1550.
  27. Andrew, Scottie. "Two puffins scratched their itches with sticks -- the first evidence that seabirds can use tools". CNN. Retrieved 2020-01-01.
  28. Fayet, Annette L.; Hansen, Erpur Snær; Biro, Dora (2019-12-24). "Evidence of tool use in a seabird". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117 (3): 1277–1279. doi:10.1073/pnas.1918060117. ISSN   0027-8424. PMC   6983420 . PMID   31889002.
  29. Lowther, Peter E.; Diamond, A. W; Kress, Stephen W.; Robertson, Gregory J.; Russell, Keith (2002). Poole, A. (ed.). "Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)" . The Birds of North America Online. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. doi:10.2173/bna.709 . Retrieved 1 April 2009.
  30. Plunkett, John (15 September 2008). "Gordon Ramsay cleared over puffin eating". The Guardian, 15 September 2008. London. Retrieved 6 April 2009.
  31. "The island where people eat puffins". BBC News. 24 September 2017. Retrieved 24 September 2017.
  32. "Puffin Island". BBC Radio 4 - The Living World. Retrieved September 5, 2007.
  33. "Meaning of lundey". Pete Robson's Lundy Island Site. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007. Retrieved September 5, 2007.

Related Research Articles

Tufted puffin Species of bird

The tufted puffin, also known as crested puffin, is a relatively abundant medium-sized pelagic seabird in the auk family (Alcidae) found throughout the North Pacific Ocean. It is one of three species of puffin that make up the genus Fratercula and is easily recognizable by its thick red bill and yellow tufts.

Auk Family of birds

An auk or alcid is a bird of the family Alcidae in the order Charadriiformes. The alcid family includes the murres, guillemots, auklets, puffins, and murrelets. The word auk is derived from Icelandic álka, from Old Norse alka (“auk”), from Proto-Germanic *alkǭ.

Atlantic puffin Species of seabird (Fratercula arctica)

The Atlantic puffin, also known as the common puffin, is a species of seabird in the auk family. It is the only puffin native to the Atlantic Ocean; two related species, the tufted puffin and the horned puffin, are found in the northeastern Pacific. The Atlantic puffin breeds in Québec, Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and the Faroe Islands, and as far south as Maine in the west and France in the east. The Atlantic Puffin is most commonly found on the Westman Islands, Iceland. Although it has a large population and a wide range, the species has declined rapidly, at least in parts of its range, resulting in it being rated as vulnerable by the IUCN. On land, it has the typical upright stance of an auk. At sea, it swims on the surface and feeds mainly on small fish, which it catches by diving under water, using its wings for propulsion.

Shearwater Seabird

Shearwaters are medium-sized long-winged seabirds in the petrel family. They have a global marine distribution, but are most common in temperate and cold waters, and are pelagic outside the breeding season.

Procellariidae A family of seabirds which includes petrels, shearweters and prions

The family Procellariidae is a group of seabirds that comprises the fulmarine petrels, the gadfly petrels, the prions, and the shearwaters. This family is part of the bird order Procellariiformes, which also includes the albatrosses and the storm petrels.

Manx shearwater Species of bird

The Manx shearwater is a medium-sized shearwater in the seabird family Procellariidae. The scientific name of this species records a name shift: Manx shearwaters were called Manks puffins in the 17th century. Puffin is an Anglo-Norman word for the cured carcasses of nestling shearwaters. The Atlantic puffin acquired the name much later, possibly because of its similar nesting habits.

Pigeon guillemot Seabird in the auk family from North Pacific coastal waters

The pigeon guillemot is a species of bird in the auk family, Alcidae. One of three species in the genus Cepphus, it is most closely related to the spectacled guillemot. There are five subspecies of the pigeon guillemot; all subspecies, when in breeding plumage, are dark brown with a black iridescent sheen and a distinctive wing patch broken by a brown-black wedge. Its non-breeding plumage has mottled grey and black upperparts and white underparts. The long bill is black, as are the claws. The legs, feet, and inside of the mouth are red. It closely resembles the black guillemot, which is slightly smaller and lacks the dark wing wedge present in the pigeon guillemot. Combined, the two form a superspecies.

Razorbill Species of seabird

The razorbill, razor-billed auk, or lesser auk is a colonial seabird in the monotypic genus Alca of the family Alcidae, the auks. It is the closest living relative of the extinct great auk. Wild populations live in the subarctic waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Common murre Species of bird

The common murre or common guillemot is a large auk. It is also known as the thin-billed murre in North America. It has a circumpolar distribution, occurring in low-Arctic and boreal waters in the North Atlantic and North Pacific. It spends most of its time at sea, only coming to land to breed on rocky cliff shores or islands.

Little shearwater Species of bird

The little shearwater is a small shearwater in the petrel family Procellariidae. Despite the generic name, it is unrelated to the puffins, which are auks, the only similarity being that they are both burrow-nesting seabirds.

Horned puffin Species of bird

The horned puffin is an auk found in the North Pacific Ocean, including the coasts of Alaska, Siberia and British Columbia. It is a pelagic seabird that feeds primarily by diving for fish. It nests in colonies, often with other auks.

<i>Puffinus</i> Genus of birds

Puffinus is a genus of seabirds in the order Procellariiformes. It comprises about 20 small to medium-sized shearwaters. Two other shearwater genera are named: Calonectris, which comprises three or four large shearwaters, and Ardenna with another seven species.

<i>Calonectris</i> Genus of birds

Calonectris is a genus of seabirds. The genus name comes from Ancient Greek kalos, "good" and nectris, "swimmer".

Parakeet auklet Species of bird

The parakeet auklet is a small seabird of the North Pacific. Parakeet Auklets used to be placed on its own in the genus Cyclorrhynchus but recent morphological and genetic evidence suggest it should be placed in the genus Aethia, making them closely related to crested auklets and least auklets. It is associated with the boreal waters of Alaska, Kamchatka and Siberia. It breeds on the cliffs, slopes and boulder fields of offshore islands, generally moving south during the winter.

Rhinoceros auklet Species of bird

The rhinoceros auklet is a seabird and a close relative of the puffins. It is the only extant species of the genus Cerorhinca. Given its close relationship with the puffins, the common name rhinoceros puffin has been proposed for the species.

Wedge-tailed shearwater Species of bird

The wedge-tailed shearwater is a medium-large shearwater in the seabird family Procellariidae. It is one of the shearwater species that is sometimes referred to as a muttonbird, like the sooty shearwater of New Zealand and the short-tailed shearwater of Australia. It ranges throughout the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans, roughly between latitudes 35°N and 35°S. It breeds on islands off Japan, on the Islas Revillagigedo, the Hawaiian Islands, the Seychelles, the Northern Mariana Islands, and off Eastern and Western Australia.

<i>Aethia</i> Genus of birds

Aethia is a genus of four small (85–300g) auklets endemic to the North Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk and among some of North America's most abundant seabirds. The relationships between the four true auklets remains unclear. Auklets are threatened by invasive species such as Arctic foxes and Norway rats because of their high degree of coloniality and crevice-nesting.

<i>Synthliboramphus</i> Genus of birds

Synthliboramphus is a small genus of seabirds in the auk family from the North Pacific. The genus name Synthliboramphus is from Ancient Greek sunthlibo, "to compress", and rhamphos, "bill". "Murrelet" is a diminutive of "murre", a word of uncertain origins, but which may imitate the call of the common guillemot.

Bird colony

A bird colony is a large congregation of individuals of one or more species of bird that nest or roost in proximity at a particular location. Many kinds of birds are known to congregate in groups of varying size; a congregation of nesting birds is called a breeding colony. Colonial nesting birds include seabirds such as auks and albatrosses; wetland species such as herons; and a few passerines such as weaverbirds, certain blackbirds, and some swallows. A group of birds congregating for rest is called a communal roost. Evidence of colonial nesting has been found in non-neornithine birds (Enantiornithes), in sediments from the Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) of Romania.

Dows puffin Extinct species of bird

Dow's puffin is an extinct seabird in the auk family described in 2000 from subfossil remains found in the Channel Islands of California.