Skip to main content

Horned Puffin Life History



Horned Puffins nest in colonies on cliffs and islands, usually on ledges and crevices over the sea, sometimes in crevices among stones or in talus slopes below cliffs. Unlike Tufted and Atlantic Puffins, they do not dig burrows for nesting but lay their egg directly on the rocks. During the breeding season, Horned Puffins forage relatively near the nest site, though some may commute over 60 miles to productive foraging grounds over the continental shelf in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. After nesting, the adults disperse to sea, with most of the population apparently wintering far out in the central North Pacific, over very deep water. Juveniles also winter there, remaining at sea for 2 years before returning to breed in their third year.

Back to top



Horned Puffins feed mostly on small fish during the breeding season, which they capture during dives that may go below 100 feet. They open their wings and “fly” underwater, and some studies suggest that they can dive as deeply as 250 feet. They consume their prey underwater except when feeding chicks, when they carry many fish at a time in the bill. During the breeding season in Alaska, Horned Puffins often hunt near islands, in places where rip currents concentrate small fish. Here, they often forage among thousands of other seabirds, including Thick-billed and Common Murres, Tufted Puffins, Crested, Least, and Parakeet Auklets, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous-winged Gulls, and Northern Fulmars. After the nesting season, when they have dispersed to deep waters of the Pacific, they eat fish and many kinds of invertebrates, including squid, octopus, krill (small crustaceans), and bristleworms (polychaetes). Prey fish include northern smoothtongue, Pacific saury, sandlance, capelin, pollock, greenling, and various salmon species. Because they also eat lanternfish during the nonbreeding season, ornithologists believe that Horned Puffins must forage partly at night, when these vertically migrating, bioluminescent fish are near the sea surface.

Back to top


Nest Placement


Nests are on cliffs or slopes of rocky islands, or sometimes in crevices between boulders, as well as in earthen burrows like other puffin species.

Nest Description

Nests are lined with grass, algae, twigs, and feathers; some nests have a discernible cup, while others have very little in the way of nest material.

Nesting Facts

Egg Description:

Chalky white, sometimes marked with faint lavender-gray or pale olive.

Condition at Hatching:

Covered in down, can walk, but stays in nest.

Back to top


Surface Dive

Horned Puffins begin their courtship as soon as they arrive back at the breeding sites. Male and female swim alongside each other, the male raising and opening the bill, jerking the head, and even bringing his bill to rest on his back. The female retracts and lowers her head in response, then faces the male, and the two rub their bills together, jerking their heads and opening and closing their bills, giving a popping sound. This courtship display continues at the nest site and through the breeding season, especially when adults exchange places at the nest during incubation or brooding. These “billing” displays sometimes occur between Horned Puffins of the same sex that have adjacent nests, suggesting that the display has multiple functions. Males sometimes nibble at the nape or legs of their mates and also present them with nest material in their bills. If challenged by an intruder of their own species at the nest site, both male and female drive away the challenger with open bills and flapping wings.

Back to top


Low Concern

Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 800,000 individuals and rates the species an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Horned Puffins are relatively common, but as with other oceangoing and arctic-breeding species, climate change is likely to drastically change their ocean habitat and food supply. In the recent past, many thousands of Horned Puffins died each year in marine fisheries, but changes to gill netting and other fishery practices have helped improve this situation. In the period 2016–2019, thousands of dead seabirds washing ashore in Alaska included Horned Puffins; the cause of these deaths was linked to unusually high seawater temperatures changing the availability of prey species. In addition, Horned Puffins consume pieces of plastic at sea, which are probably deleterious to their health.

Back to top


Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Piatt, John F. and Alexander S. Kitaysky. (2002). Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Back to top

Learn more at Birds of the World