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Tufted Puffin Life History


OceansTufted Puffins nest in colonies on steep rocky islands, usually in grassy turf on slopes, sometimes in crevices among stones. They typically dig burrows into the soil for nesting. During the breeding season, Tufted Puffins forage relatively near the nest site, though some may commute over 60 miles to productive foraging grounds over the continental shelf. After nesting, adults disperse to sea, with most of the population wintering over very deep water far out in the central North Pacific. Juveniles also winter there, and because they do not breed until their third year, may remain on the open ocean for two more years.Back to top


FishTufted Puffins feed mostly on small fish during the breeding season (and feed fish to their young), which they capture during dives. They open their wings and “fly” underwater, diving as deep as 360 feet, deeper than other puffin species. Tufted Puffins consume their prey underwater except during the breeding season, when they bring up to 20 fish at a time back to their chicks. During the breeding season in Alaska, Tufted Puffins often forage near islands and narrow passes between islands, where rip currents concentrate small fish and other prey. Here, they often forage in large numbers among thousands of other seabirds, including Thick-billed and Common Murres, Horned Puffins, Crested, Least, and Parakeet Auklets, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous-winged Gulls, and Northern Fulmars. After the nesting season, when they disperse to deep waters of the Pacific, they eat fish and many kinds of invertebrates, including squid, small crustaceans (euphausiids especially), pteropods, and bristleworms (polychaetes). Prey fish include northern smoothtongue, Pacific herring, Pacific saury, Pacific cod, sandlance, capelin, Alaska pollock, anchovy, prowfish, sandfish, sablefish, Atka mackerel, greenling, and various salmon, sculpin, flatfish, and rockfish species. Because they also eat lanternfish during the nonbreeding season, ornithologists believe that Tufted Puffins must forage partly at night, when these vertically migrating, bioluminescent fish are near the sea surface. Typically, wintering birds at sea forage alone, but where prey species are abundant, dozens may be present in a small area.Back to top


Nest Placement

BurrowNest burrows are made in seaside cliff edges and slopes where there is deep soil with dense vegetation. Some nests are made in rocky crevices, among large boulders, or in cracks or caves in cliffs.

Nest Description

Male and female, using the feet and bill, excavate a burrow in soil that averages about 34 inches long, with an entrance about 7.6 inches wide and 7 inches tall. They line the nest chamber itself with plant stems, leaves, grasses, feathers, and algae.

Nesting Facts

Egg Description:Whitish
Condition at Hatching:Down-covered, eyes open, able to maintain body temperature independently after 1 week.
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Surface DiveTufted Puffins begin courtship as soon as they arrive back at the breeding sites. They nest in colonies but also as solitary pairs. Males pursue females in the water, the male raising and opening the bill, jerking the head, and even bringing the bill to rest on the back, showing off the brilliant orange-red mouth lining and the two pink fleshy ornaments at the mouth corners. A receptive female might invite more courtship by facing the male and “billing,” that is, rubbing the bill against the male’s bill quickly. On land, males bow to females and swing the bill side to side, nibble at the nape or feet of their mates, and also present them with nest material in their bills. They also make “landing displays,” in which they crouch after landing at the nest site, raise the wings above the back, parade with exaggerated steps, then lower the wings. These courtship displays continue at the nest site and through the breeding season, particularly when adults exchange places at the nest during “shift change.” When encountering an intruder of their own species at the nest site, both male and female drive away the bird with lowered body, erected tufts, open bill, and raised tail, and males may pursue rival males in the water, porpoising like a penguin for a kilometer or more. Like other alcids, Tufted Puffins perform circular flights above nesting areas, often in groups.Back to top


Low Concern

Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.3 million and rates the species an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. In the recent past, many tens of thousands of Tufted Puffins died in commercial marine fisheries operations; this number has fallen to the thousands per year in the 21st century. On many Alaskan islands where Tufted Puffins once nested, introduced rats and foxes have wiped out nesting seabirds, including puffins. Rising seawater temperatures, an effect of climate change, are believed to have changed the availability of prey species for many seabirds in the northern Pacific. In addition, Tufted Puffins consume pieces of plastic at sea, which can accumulate in their stomachs.

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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.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Piatt, John F. and Alexander S. Kitaysky. (2002). Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata), 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.

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