Height: 12 inches
Weight: 1 lbs
Life Span: 20 years
Also Called: Common puffin
Of the three species of puffin, the Atlantic Puffin is the smallest in size. Like all puffins, its most distinctive feature is its large, brightly-colored bill, which is orange and yellow with a triangle of blue at the base. It has white on its face, breast, and undersides but is mostly black elsewhere. Its legs and feet are red, and it has webbed toes with toenails that allow it to dig burrows in the earth or climb on and cling to rocky ledges and cliffs. As with other puffins, the color of the bill and feathers tends to be duller during the non-breeding season. Males and females look alike in coloring but the male is slightly taller than the female.
The Atlantic Puffin likes to eat fish, squid, and crustaceans. Chicks eat mostly fish. Adult puffins will forage for food close to their colony, but sometimes may go as far as 10 miles for food. They catch fish by diving under the ocean's surface, and grabbing their prey with their bills. They are able to carry several fish in their bills at once.
Atlantic Puffins are the only species of puffin that lives in the North Atlantic region, which includes Labrador and south to the Northeastern United States, as well as the Brittany Coast of France and the coasts of Iceland, Greenland, and Northern Russia. They are mainly pelagic in winter when not breeding, which means they live out on the open ocean.
The Great Black-backed Gull is perhaps the biggest threat to the Atlantic Puffin. It is capable of attacking a puffin while flying, or may catch an unsuspecting solitary puffin by surprise by dive-bombing it from behind. Herring gulls will sometimes steal fish from a puffin when it returns from the ocean to feed its check, or it will pull unguarded puffin eggs or even chicks out of their nesting burrows, often meaning dire consequences for the egg or the chick.
Atlantic puffins, like other puffins, are very social birds. They make their nests in large groups called colonies, and feed together in flocks. Graceful underwater and agile on land, the puffin is awkward in the air, and has a bit of trouble getting airborne. It will "run" along the surface of the ocean in order to get up enough speed to take flight, or sometimes will dive off a cliff in order to get airborne.
Breeding season for the Atlantic Puffin is in spring. The puffins will return to their breeding colonies after spending several months at sea. Courtship rituals include visual displays such as flapping of the wings, jerking of the head, and "billing" or rubbing the bills together. Once a pair mates they usually are mated for life, and will often use the same nesting burrow again and again. The puffin pair digs their burrow with their feet and bills, if they can find a spot with soil deep enough to dig in. Otherwise they will nest in between the rocks of a cliff. The nest is built by the male and is made of feather, leaves, and grass, and one egg is laid there. The egg is incubated by both the male and the female. Once the egg hatches, both parents will feed and care for the chick, taking turns so that one parent can stay behind to keep the baby puffin, or "pufflin", warm. After 5 days both parents can leave to forage for fish, since the young puffin can keep warm on its own. It will stay in the burrow and wait for its parents to return with fish for it to eat. After 6 weeks the young puffin is old enough and grown enough to "fledge", or leave its nest. It will fly away from the island to spend the next 3-4 years out on the ocean, but when mature enough to breed it will return to the same breeding colony it was hatched in, to find its own mate.
Puffins communicate with loud, growling calls, usually from within its underground burrow. Chicks make peeping noises to get their parents to give them fish. Adults also communicate by using body movements. For example, walking quickly with head lowered means the puffin poses no threat to others. Aggression is shown by stomping a foot, and "gaping", which means puffing up the body to make the puffin look bigger. It also will open its wings and its beak slightly. A more wide-open beak means the puffin is upset.