Puffins are any of three small species of alcids (auks) in the bird genus Fratercula with a brightly coloured beak during the breeding season. These are pelagic seabirds that feed primarily by diving in the water.
What are puffins?
They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil. Two species, the tufted puffin and horned puffin, are found in the North Pacific Ocean, while the Atlantic puffin is found in the North Atlantic Ocean.
All puffin species have predominantly black or black and white plumage, a stocky build, and large beaks. They shed the colourful outer parts of their bills after the breeding season, leaving a smaller and duller beak. Their short wings are adapted for swimming with a flying technique under water. In the air, they beat their wings rapidly (up to 400 times per minute) in swift flight, often flying low over the ocean’s surface.
Puffins are hunted for eggs, feathers and meat. Atlantic puffin populations drastically declined due to habitat destruction and exploitation during the 19th century and early 20th century. They continue to be hunted in Iceland and the Faroe Islands. On the Blasket Islands off the coast of County Kerry, which were abandoned in 1953, the islanders, who often lived just above starvation level, hunted and ate puffins in large numbers.
The Atlantic puffin forms part of the national diet in Iceland, where the species does not have legal protection. Puffins are hunted by a technique called “sky fishing”, which involves catching low-flying birds with a big net. Their meat is commonly featured on hotel menus. The fresh heart of a puffin is eaten raw as a traditional Icelandic delicacy.
Like many auks, puffins eat both fish and zooplankton, but feed their chicks primarily with small marine fish several times a day. The prey species of the Atlantic puffin include the sandeel, herring and capelin. The puffins are distinct in their ability to hold several (sometimes over a dozen) small fish at a time, crosswise in their bill, rather than regurgitating swallowed fish. This allows them to take longer foraging trips, since they can come back with more food energy for their chick than a bird that can only carry one fish at a time. This behaviour is made possible by the unique hinging mechanism of their beak, which allows the upper and lower biting edges to meet at any of a number of angles.
Image: By Ray Hennessy
Text: Wikipedia contributors. “Tufted puffin.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Aug. 2017. Web. 14 Aug. 2017.