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Atlantic Puffin Life History



Atlantic Puffins nest in burrows on rocky islands with short vegetation, and on sea cliffs. They spend the rest of the year at sea.

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Atlantic Puffins eat small fish around 2 to 6 inches long, mainly sandlance (sandeel), sprat, capelin, herring, hake, and cod. During the breeding season, they forage in shallow waters close to the breeding colony, generally not straying more than about 10 miles from shore. Atlantic Puffins often capture several fish during one dive, holding them crosswise in their bill. Backward-pointed spines on the roof of their mouth and tongue help keep the fish in place.

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Nest Placement


Atlantic Puffins nest in colonies on small islands covered in short vegetation, typically in the turf soil at the tops of steep, rocky cliffs. In some colonies in the north of the puffin’s range, nests are placed in crevices or beneath boulders.

Nest Description

Atlantic Puffins dig a shallow hole or burrow into the ground with their bill and feet. Both sexes share the task, with the male typically doing more excavation than the female. On rocky islands they make a nest under a boulder or within a crevice among the rocks. Pieces of grass and twigs often line the bottom of the burrow. Pairs tend to reuse the burrow year after year.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1 egg
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.3-2.6 in (5.9-6.7 cm)
Egg Width:1.7-1.9 in (4.4-4.7 cm)
Incubation Period:36-45 days
Nestling Period:38-44 days
Egg Description:

Dull white.

Condition at Hatching:

Covered in dark gray down.

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Surface Dive

Atlantic Puffins spend most of their life on the open ocean, coming ashore only to breed. On land they waddle like a penguin, teetering slightly from side to side. They "fly" underwater using their wings for propulsion and their feet as a rudder. They can dive to depths of around 200 feet, but they typically feed in shallower waters. During the breeding season, they forage in small groups of up to around 7; in the winter they are less social often foraging singly or with another individual. At the breeding colonies they are social birds, often placing their nesting burrows within a couple of body lengths of each other. Birds arriving to the colony often crouch in a horizontal position with one foot in front of the other as if bowing to be accepted to the group. They also walk around the colony in a horizontal position to signal nonaggression. Atlantic Puffins form monogamous bonds and often return to the same burrow with the same mate in subsequent years. To attract a female, males flick their heads and grunt like a pig near a nesting burrow. Once paired, they maintain their bond by rubbing their bills together. Individuals often shake their head side to side or stomp their feet to proclaim burrow ownership. Intruding males that get too close to the nesting burrow are met with ruffled feathers and an open bill. Occasionally a fight ensues with clawing and grappling. Nonbreeders at the colony often form flocks and spend hours flying in wide circular or figure-8 paths over the colony cliffs, a behavior called wheeling flight.

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Low Concern

Atlantic Puffins still number in the millions, but their numbers are declining mainly because of changes to their food supplies from warming of ocean waters. At present in North America, the species rates an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means it is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates between 750,000 and 760,000 breeding birds on the continent while the global breeding population is estimated at 12 million according to Partners in Flight. The species is ranked as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. About half of all Atlantic Puffins breed in Iceland. In the southern half of the country, warming ocean waters have changed the availability of sandlance (sandeel), causing almost complete breeding failure each year for more than a decade. Puffins used to breed on Iceland’s mainland, but after American mink escaped and spread across the country in the 1930s, almost all the mainland colonies were eradicated. Most of Iceland’s remaining puffin colonies are on small islands just offshore. In Iceland and the Faroe Islands, the birds have been hunted relatively sustainably for centuries. But in North America, heavy exploitation for eggs, meat, and feathers in the 1800s and early 1900s caused populations to decline, and puffins disappeared entirely from the United States. Thanks to the creation of protected areas and groundbreaking work to relocate young to former nesting islands by Steve Kress of the National Audubon Society, more than 2,000 puffins now breed again in Maine. For more information, visit Project Puffin.

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