Spot the puffin: What a remarkable beak!

The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) belongs to the auk family (Alcidae) wich live and breed around Iceland. Other members of this family include the Black guillemot, Common murre, Thick-billed murre, Razorbill, and the rarely seen Dovekie. Puffins live in the NA Atlantic and breed in Greenland, Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Norway but the majority of the world population breeds in Iceland. Puffins are also found in North America, the biggest colonies are found in Newfoundland and Labrador were it is the provincial bird.

How do they behave?

Puffins are migratory birds and spend about 8 months each year far out on the sea. When spring arrives they come to shore and start looking at borrows prior to nesting. Each puffin pair has its own borrow wich is a hole in the ground with a 1-3 meters long tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, the puffin lays a single egg. Puffin grounds are therefore full of holes and tunnels. Puffins are monogamous, they mate for life.

The birds can become very old, the oldest marked puffin from Iceland was 38 years old but the average lifespan is 20-25 years. The incubation length for the puffin egg is about 40 days.  The chick of puffins are called pufflings, they live in the dark borrow underground and get small fish from the parents until they leave the nest in late summer to live out at sea. Puffins become mature at the age 4-5 then they return home to their fledging grounds to steal a burrow or they dig a new hole if all the old ones are occupied.

The most abundant bird in Iceland

The priest or the pastor are other names for the puffin, as the bird resembles a highly ranked clergy man in his shiny cloak when he walks around with that remarkable nose of his.  You can find puffins all around Iceland but the biggest colony is found in the Westman Islands with about 800 thousand breeding pairs. Other large colonies are found at Breidafjordur bay and on the islands Vigur, Drangey, Papey, Grímsey, and Mánareyjar to name a few.

The Icelandic puffin population is estimated at about 2 million breeding pairs and is considered the most common bird in Iceland. About 60% of the world’s puffin population breeds around the Icelandic shore and on the islands. The puffin population was much higher a few decades ago when it was estimated about 10 million breeding pairs. A collapse in the sand eel population around 2005 had a big negative impact on the puffins as on many other seabirds in Iceland. The puffin lives on small fish mostly sand eels, herring, and capalin as it is an exceptional diver and can catch fish as deep as 60 meters (200 feet).

Five fun facts about puffins:

  1. Puffins can dive to 60 meters depth (200 feet) for 2 whole minutes when feeding.
  2. Despite their small wingspan, the puffin can reach 88km/h(55m/h) while flying. To do so he has to flap his wing 400 times/min.
  3. Puffins mate for life and can become at least 40 years old.
  4. The colourful nose of the puffin becomes black/greyish during the winter but very little is known about his 8 months winter activity.
  5. It is possible to observe puffins at numerous sites around Iceland. Puffins are the most common bird in Iceland and about 60% of the world population breeds there.

Links worth a look:

National Geographic on Icelandic Puffins

Puffins in Iceland on YouTube

Great info from All About Birds

More to read from Birds of the World

Icelandic Version – Íslenska

Author: Dr. Þórður Örn Kristjánsson
Photographer: Dr. Þórður Örn Kristjánsson &  Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson


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