When “Little Brother” Comes Home


EACH spring, after seven or eight months of nomadic life at sea, the puffin returns to its home in Arctic waters. It is breeding season, and the puffin seems to be dressed up for the occasion. Indeed, its feet have turned bright orange, and its bill has grown a colorful plate, which is later shed. The distinct black-and-white plumage remains year round, and this gives the puffin a somewhat clerical appearance. Perhaps this explains the Atlantic puffin’s scientific name Fratercula arctica, which means “little friar, or brother, of the north.” *

Puffins head for their cliffside burrows in small groups called rafts, each of which comprises about 20 or 30 birds. Either during the journey or upon reaching the burrow, the puffin will find its mate. Interestingly, many puffins keep the same burrow—and the same mate—year after year.

Puffins can fly, but they are clearly not the world’s greatest “aviators.” Indeed, their arrival on shore can resemble a crash landing! Furthermore, the puffin’s takeoff is somewhat clumsy, and at times it seems that the bird’s wings will not support its stout body. Some puffins even have trouble getting out of the water. But once those wings are beating—and they may beat as rapidly as 400 times a minute—the puffin can achieve a cruising speed of 50 miles [80 km] per hour.

Puffins are obviously more comfortable at sea than on land. But come to land they must, for a puffin couple will have to prepare a burrow for their young. Upon reaching land, a couple will clean the burrow, which may measure anywhere from 20 inches [50 cm] in length to about four times that size. They line the burrow with bedding consisting of grass, twigs, and feathers. Some puffins nest in cracks under boulders or in rocky crevices. Using its bill, the puffin picks its way through dirt and then shovels the dirt away with its webbed feet.

The courtship of the puffin couple takes place in the water. During the ceremony the males flick their heads, puff up their chests, and flutter their wings, and the couples repeatedly tap bills. This last ritual, called billing, continues even after mating. It appears to be the couple’s way of affirming a mutual bond.

After an egg is laid, it is literally taken under the parents’ wings—a responsibility shared by father and mother. Six weeks later, when the chick hatches, the real work begins. The gray-black, soft, down-covered hatchling is brooded for a week to help it maintain its body temperature. The parent puffins make an increasing number of trips to the sea to secure enough food for their chick. The fishing expeditions are not too dangerous, since there are so many puffins going out to sea and back to the burrows. It seems that the flurry of activity makes it difficult for gulls and other predators to attack.

Puffins are expert swimmers and divers. Using their webbed feet as rudders and their wings to propel themselves, they can remain underwater for more than 30 seconds, at depths reaching nearly a hundred feet [30 m]. A puffin may return home with one or two small fish—perhaps capelins or sand lances—in its bill. Of course, the smaller the fish, the more the puffin can hold in its beak. One was observed with a catch of more than 60!  Backward-pointing spines in its mouth enable the puffin to hold fish in place while more are being caught. This is a good thing, considering that a baby puffin can eat 50 fish a day.

After about six weeks, the parent puffins head back to sea. The fledgling puffin, now left on its own, slims down in preparation for leaving the burrow. In the evenings it does wing exercises. Finally, under cover of darkness, the puffin tumbles down to the sea and vigorously paddles away.

Two to three years will elapse before the young puffin returns to its place of birth, and it will be four or five years old before it mates. The mature puffin will perhaps weigh a bit over a pound [490 g] and stand only about 12 inches [30 cm] high. Even though it is relatively small, a healthy puffin can live for about 25 years. One Atlantic puffin survived to the ripe old age of 39!

Experts estimate the Atlantic puffin population to be 20 million. These birds are fascinating to watch. “Even in the most ordinary things the puffin is entertaining,” wrote David Boag and Mike Alexander in their book The Atlantic Puffin. And if you live near the northern shores of the Atlantic or the Pacific, perhaps you will see one. In any event, one thing is certain—each spring, “little brother of the north” will come home, and a new generation of dark-feathered seabirds will be born.


^ par. 3 The name may also allude to the fact that the puffin clasps its webbed feet together after emerging from the water, as if in a prayerful stance.

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Puffins at Witless Bay, Newfoundland

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Courtesy: Tourism, Newfoundland and Labrador; photographer: Barrett and Mackay

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Courtesy: Tourism, Newfoundland and Labrador

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Tom Veso/Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology