Monday, July 16, 2018

Birds of Newfoundland: Atlantic Puffin

When many people think of the birds of Newfoundland, they think of Atlantic Puffin, and for good reason. These small Alcids, with their colourful bills, are full of personality and are among the most charming of birds to watch.
As a member of the Auk family they are often referred to as 'penguins of the north'. Their scientific name Fratercula artica is perhaps a reference to their black and white colouration, since fratercula means 'little brother of the north' or 'little friar of the north'.

Atlantic Puffin swimming, Witless Bay, Newfoundland
Atlantic Puffin- note it's black and white friar-like plumage!
Photo: Jason Dain


The Atlantic Puffin was adopted as the provincial bird of Newfoundland in 1992 and has served as the official symbol for the province ever since. It's an important bird in many ways for the people of Newfoundland, both today and historically. Some Puffins would have been taken along with Murres in late fall and winter to serve as valuable protein to Newfoundlanders living in remote settlements and outports. However, these thankfully one is much more likely to shoot an Atlantic Puffin with a camera, rather than a gun.

Atlantic Puffins are big business in Newfoundland as people flock here in summer, much as the birds do. The Puffins come here to breed and the birders come here for the Puffins! Since the collapse of the fishery in Newfoundland in the 1980's, tourism is now the dominant industry in the province. Some of those people who once fished, converted their boats to sight seeing vessels, to take tourists out to offshore islands where Atlantic Puffins, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre and Razorbill breed.
Atlantic Puffin, Witless Bay, Newfoundland
Atlantic Puffin:
Photo: Jason Dain


Did you know that Atlantic Puffin is just one of 4 species of Puffins in North American, but is the only Puffin that's native to the Atlantic Ocean. It's close relatives the Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin and Rhinocerous Auklet are all native to the north Pacific. Amazingly there is actually a record of Tufted Puffin for New Brunswick, Canada, another for the UK and single records from Greenland and a bird found in Swedan in 1994 represented the first record for the Western Palearctic. Atlantic Puffins are also closely related to other Alcids such as the Murres, Razorbill, Guillemots and Dovekie.


Atlantic Puffins are a rich, glossy black above and white below from the upper breast to the under tail coverts. Their pale face (with grayish wash) contrasts strongly against the head and body and is visible on flying birds even at long distances. Puffins are a chunky, sturdily built bird, with a thick body and a short neck. An Atlantic Puffin stands about 8 inches tall and has a wing span of about 20-25 inches. Like other Alcids, Atlantic Puffins have feet placed well back on the body which sevre to propel them under water, but are a hindrance to their movement on land. As clumsy as Puffins look on land, they are amazingly graceful under water, where they use their stiff, narrow wings and webbed feet to propel them.

                                           Note how the Puffins propel themselves using their wings

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of an Atlantic Puffin and that for which they are best known, is their bill. Their bills have earned Puffins several nicknames, perhaps the most popular of those is 'sea parrot'. In the breeding season, Atlantic Puffin bills swell and they grow in new layers of colour. It is a surprisingly little known fact that all Puffins (including Atlantic Puffins) moult parts of their bill in their pre-basic moult, following the breeding season, and have a much duller and smaller bill in the winter, along with a much darker face.
Comparison of breeding vs non-breeding Atlantic Puffins
Photo Atlantic Laboratory for Avian Research

Puffin bills are thought to have evolved to be so ornate as a means of sexual selection, but did you know that Puffin bills glow under UV light?! This was only discovered recently and was surprising, since Alcids were thought to have poor UV vision. So, while we humans marvel at the beauty of a Puffins bill, it probably looks quite different though the eyes of a Puffin.

Note the bright blue glow on this Atlantic Puffin specimens bill when under UV light

Distribution and Life History

Atlantic Puffin is restricted to the North Atlantic, where it has colonies in the Gulf of Maine, Newfoundland, Iceland and the UK, among others. Colonies within the Witless Bay Ecological reserve in Eastern Newfoundland number at around 300,000 pairs, making it the largest colony of Atlantic Puffins in the western Atlantic. Although, Atlantic Puffins are synonymous with Newfoundland, most of the world's population breeds in Europe with about 60% of the total in Iceland.

While Newfoundland's Atlantic Puffin colonies seem to be stable, some colonies in Europe have seen sharp declines and it is estimated that the European population of Atlantic Puffin could decrease as by as much as 75% by 2065. The causes for this decline are varied and range from, 

-over-harvesting by humans, 
-disruption in the availability of prey fish due to overfishing, 
-reduction in available prey fish due to increased water temperature
- introduction of rats, foxes and other predators on nesting islands
- introduction of invasive plant species, preventing digging of nesting burrows

While this does not paint a bright future for the species there have also been some tremendous success stories. Notably, Puffins have been reintroduced to islands in Maine, from which they had been extirpated.

One of the factors that Atlantic Puffins have going for them is they are quite long lived, with an average life expectancy of around 20 years.While they spend the majority of their lives far out at sea they return to their offshore island homes each Spring to breed. While Puffins will not breed until their fourth or fifth year, when they do they lay a single egg in a well dug burrow, in grassy slopes, but occasionally they may nest in rocky crevices. As colonial nesters there is often fierce competition for prime nesting areas and squabbles among competing birds are commonplace.
Atlantic Puffins Newfoundland
Puffins stand guard over their burrow
Photo Jason Dain

Atlantic Puffins in Newfoundland courting
Puffin pair bonding
Photo: Jason Dain

Atlantic Puffin standing beside it's nesting burrow
Photo: Jason Dain

One of my favourite Puffin behaviours to observe is billing. The birds approach each other, moving their heads from side to side then quickly and repeatedly tap their bills together. An example of this behaviour can be seen in the video below.

Puffins 'billing'

While Puffins can often be seen as uninteresting by some Newfoundland birders, owing to their abundance, when you actually take the time to get to know these birds they have a tendency to grow on you. Their comical looks  and rambunctious personalities give them a certain charm that not many bird species can match. While this was not meant to be an exhaustive study of the Atlantic Puffin, hopefully you came away with a tidbit or two of new knowledge or perhaps an increased appreciation for Newfoundland's provincial bird, the Atlantic Puffin.

Atlantic Puffin in flight
Photo: Jason Dain
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