The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) is a seabird species in the auk family. It is a pelagic bird that feeds primarily by diving for fish, but also eats other sea creatures, such as squid and crustaceans. Its most obvious characteristic during the breeding season is its brightly coloured bill. Also known as the Common Puffin, it is the only puffin species which is found in the Atlantic Ocean. The curious appearance of the bird, with its large colourful bill and its striking piebald plumage, has given rise to nicknames such as '"clown of the ocean" and "sea rooster". The Atlantic Puffin is the provincial bird for the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Atlantic Puffin is 26–29 centimetres (10–11 in) in length (bill 3–4 cm), with a 47–63 centimetres (19–25 in) wingspan. The male is generally slightly larger than the female, but they are coloured alike. This bird is mainly black above and white below, with grey to white cheeks and red-orange legs. The bill is large and triangular and during the breeding season is bright orange with a patch of blue bordered by yellow at the rear. The characteristic bright orange bill plates grow before the breeding season and are shed after breeding. The bills are used in courtship rituals, such as the pair tapping their bills together. During flight, it appears to have grey round underwings and a white body; it has a direct flight low over the water. The related Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) from the North Pacific looks very similar but has slightly different head ornaments.
The Atlantic Puffin is typically silent at sea, except for soft purring sounds it sometimes makes in flight. At the breeding colonies, its commonest call is a trisyllabic kaa-aar-aar, while the birds make a short growl when startled.
Distribution and ecology
This species breeds on the coasts of northern Europe, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and eastern North America, from well within the Arctic Circle to northern France and Maine. The winter months are spent at sea far from land - in Europe as far south as the Mediterranean, and in North America to North Carolina.
About 95% of the Atlantic puffins in North America breed around Newfoundland's coastlines. The largest puffin colony in the western Atlantic (estimated at more than 260,000 pairs) can be found at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, south of St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Puffin viewing has also started to become popular in Elliston Newfoundland, previously named Bird Island Cove, located near Trinity. Here, puffins have been known to be tame enough to get even 2 or 3 feet away from them.
Predators of the Atlantic Puffin include the Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), the Great Skua (Stercorarius skua), and similar-sized species, which can catch a puffin in flight, or pick off one separated from the colony. Smaller gull species like the Herring Gull (L. argentatus) which are hardly able to bring down a healthy adult puffin, take eggs or recently hatched chicks, and will also steal fish.
Feeding areas are often located 100 km (60 mi) or more, offshore from the nest sites — although when provisioning young the birds venture out only half that distance. Atlantic Puffins can dive to depths of up to 70 m (200 ft) and are propelled through the water by their powerful wings, which are adapted for swimming; the webbed feet are used as a rudder while submerged. When hunting, Puffins may collect several small fish, such as herring, sprats and sand eels, zooplankton, crustaceans and mollusks. The tongue is used to hold the fish against spines in the palate, leaving the bill free to open to catch more fish. The fish, which may number up to twelve, are held in the bill with the heads facing in alternate directions.
The Atlantic Puffin is sexually mature at the age of 4–5 years; the species is monogamous and gives biparental care. They are colonial nesters, excavating burrows on grassy cliffs – they will also nest amongst rocks and scree. The species can face competition from other burrow nesting animals such as Rabbits, Manx Shearwaters and occasionally Razorbills. Male puffins perform most of the work of excavating or clearing out the nest area, which is sometimes lined with plants, feathers or seaweed. The only time spent on land is to nest; mates are found prior to arriving at the colonies, and mating takes place at sea. The breeding season for Atlantic puffins is normally in the summer, with eggs laid in June and July.
A single-egg clutch is produced each year, and incubation responsibilities are shared between both parents. Total incubation time is around 39–45 days, and the chick takes about 49 days to fledge. At fledging, the chick leaves the burrow unaccompanied, usually during the evening, and flies or swims out to sea. Contrary to popular belief, young puffins are not abandoned by their parents (although this does occur in some other seabirds, such as shearwaters). Synchronous laying of eggs is found in Atlantic Puffins in adjacent burrows.
The eyes and beak of the male have a special appearance, acquired in the spring, during the breeding season. At the close of the breeding season, these special coatings and appendages drop off in a molt.
Relationship with humans
The population of these birds was greatly reduced in the nineteenth century, when they were hunted for meat and eggs. Atlantic Puffins are still hunted and eaten, but the effect of this on populations is insignificant compared to other threats. On the Faroe Islands, for example, the birds may be hunted for local consumption after the breeding season, when excess birds are available.
Status and conservation
More recent population declines may have been due to increased predation by gulls and skuas, the introduction of rats, cats, dogs and foxes onto some islands used for nesting, contamination by toxic residues, drowning in fishing nets, declining food supplies, and climate change.
On the island of Lundy the number has decreased dramatically in recent years (the 2005 breeding population was estimated to be only two or three pairs) as a consequence of depredations by black rats (recently eliminated) and possibly also as a result of commercial fishing for sand eels, the puffins' principal prey.
On the other hand, puffin numbers increased considerably in the late twentieth century in the North Sea, including on the Isle of May and the Farne Islands. Numbers have been increasing by about 10% per year in recent years. In the 2006 breeding season, about 68,000 pairs were counted on the Isle of May. However, Iceland has many times as many breeding pairs with the puffin being the most populous bird on the island, estimated at about 5 million pairs. . In 2008 declines were reported in the Farne Islands and Isle of May colonies.
Reintroduction projects have taken place on a number of islands, including one on the coast of Maine titled Project Puffin, and these have given local boosts to some Puffin populations.
Since the Atlantic Puffin spends its winters on the open ocean, it is susceptible to human impacts such as oil spills. If an accidental oil spill occurs and pelagic birds are exposed, toxins are inhaled or ingested which leads to kidney and liver damage. This damage can contribute to a loss of reproductive success and damage to developing embryos. Oil spills may also have indirect effects. The Atlantic Puffin and other pelagic birds are excellent bioindicators of the environment because they are near the top of the food chain in the ocean. Since the primary food source for Atlantic Puffins is fish, there is a great potential to bioaccumulate heavy metals from the environment. Heavy metals enter the environment through oil spills – such as the Prestige oil spill on the Galician coast – or from other natural or anthropogenic sources. In order to determine the effects on pelagic birds such as the Atlantic Puffin, quantifiable measurements must be taken. In the field, scientists obtain contaminant measurements from eggs, feathers or internal organs.
Since the Atlantic Puffin gets the majority of its food by diving, it is important that there is an ample supply of resources and food. Different environmental conditions such as tidal cycle, upwellings and downwellings contribute to this abundance. In a study published in 2005 it was observed that Atlantic Puffins were associated with areas of well-mixed water below the surface. This study implies consequences for the species if global warming leads to an alteration of tidal cycles. If these cycles are modified too much it is probable that the Atlantic Puffin will have a difficult time locating food resources. Another consequence of an increase in temperature could be a reduction in the range of the Atlantic Puffin, as it is only able to live in cool conditions and does not fare overly well if it has to nest in barren, rocky places, and an increase in temperature could thus squeeze the zone of puffin-suitable habitat as warmer biotopes expand from the equator but the polar regions remain barren due to lack of historical accumulation of topsoil.
SOS Puffin is a conservation project based from the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick to save the puffins on islands in the Firth of Forth. Puffin numbers on the island of Craigleith, once one of the largest colonies in Scotland, with 28,000 pairs, have crashed to just a few thousand due to the invasion of a large alien plant Tree Mallow, Lavatera arborea, which has taken over the island and prevented the puffins from accessing their burrows and breeding. The project has the support of over 450 volunteers and progress is being made with puffins returning in numbers to breed this year.
The name puffin – puffed in the sense of swollen – was originally applied to the fatty salted meat of young birds of the unrelated species Manx Shearwater, Puffinus puffinus. Both species nest in burrows on off-shore islands and the name was applied to the meat of either and was formally applied to F. arctica by Pennant in 1768.
The Atlantic Puffin is the provincial bird of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Norwegian municipality of Værøy has an Atlantic Puffin in its coat-of-arms. In August 2007, the Atlantic Puffin was proposed as the official symbol of the Liberal Party of Canada by its deputy leader Michael Ignatieff, after he observed a colony of these birds and became fascinated by their behaviour.
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