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New England Seabirds


Alcids Index


Atlantic Puffin



Black Guillemot


Seabirds -  Alcids


Atlantic Puffin

Fratercula arctica

Three Atlantic Puffins on Machias Seal Island EBT

Atlantic Puffins are adorable birds.

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Northern Hemisphere Breeders

There are three species of puffin all of which breed in the northern hemisphere. Only one species is found in the Atlantic Ocean. This adorable bird is one of the most photographed birds in the world and historically one of the most persecuted.


The Atlantic Puffin breeds on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Scotland, Eastern Canada, Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Maine. In winter it disburses to the open ocean often ranging far out to sea and does not gather in large flocks. This makes it less vulnerable to large oil spills in winter. Audubon observed the Puffin off the coast of Georgia in 1831-32 and it has been reported in the Mediterranean.

How to see

It is  infrequently seen on late fall or winter pelagic trips out of Boston and rarely seen from land.. In winter they lose part of the bill and the face darkens..

There is a breeding colony on Machias Seal Island in northern Maine which is easy to visit. Every birder should see breeding puffins. For more information see Seabird Colonies. There are more extensive colonies on the European side of the Atlantic.  See Trip Reports for  a description of Skommer Island under Wales, Ireland and Scotland.

Puffin with full load of fish in bill  Emmalee Tarry

Feeding The Young
One of the most astounding things about Alcids is that they feed their young whole fish. Most seabirds depend upon regurgitating food from their stomachs. Alcids also feed regugitated food at times. Here this Puffin parent returns with six small fish held tightly in the bill. Since the fish are caught one fish at a time it is hard to see how the birds manage this feat.

This makes Alcids more susceptible to kleptoparisitism by Skuas and Jaegers. The Great Skua tends to locate near colonies of nesting Puffins and Kittiwakes in order to steal their food.

They are also vulnerable to overfishing and there is evidence that the birds on our coast are being severly impacted.

Even today subsistance hunters take puffin eggs and capture living birds. Puffins on Machias Seal Island are declining in numbers probably because of the overfishing.


Breeding Adult

Puffin head adult  EBT 

Atlantic Puffins reach maturity at about 5 years of age. The almost all white face and the groves in the red part of the bill distinguish the breeding adult. Notice the red ring around the dark eye and the yellow wattle at the hinge of the bill.

Immature Plumage

Immature Atlantic Puffin Machias Seal island EBT 

This is a juvenile puffin. Notice the dark face and bill. There is only one grove in the bill. This individual was photographed loafing around on Machias Seal Island in July by Emmalee Tarry.


Winter Plumage

Immature Atlantic Puffin Leonard Medlock 

Puffins are occassionally seen on winter pelagics.  Most prefer to spend the winter further at sea.  This mature winter plumage bird was photographed on the winter Jeffries Ledge Pelagic by Leonard Medlock in 2010.


Immature Atlantic Puffin winter Leonard Medlock 

 Photographed on Jeffrey's Ledge by Leonard Medlock Sept 2010. Puffins look so different in winter plumage that inexperienced birders fail to recognize them even when they are close to the boat. This is a first year winter plumage bird.


Visitors to Machias Seal Island observe Puffins entering crevices in the bolders quite close to the sea. Puffins however prefer to create burrows in the soft ground on grassy islands or tops of cliffs. Such nesting colonies must be kept off limits to tourists as thousands of feet stomping around would cause the shallow burrows to collapse.

Atlantic puffin painting by James Audubon

Audubon made a journey around Nova Scotia and across the Gulf of St. Lawrence visiting and painting seabird breeding colonies. This painting of a pair of Puffins nesting in burrows may be as close as most of us can get to the preferred nesting method. This painting shows the female sitting at the opening of the burrow which can be up to 9 feet in length.

Puffins lay a single egg at the end of the burrow. If the first egg is lost soon after laying, a replacement may be produced. Both parents incubate with change over occurring at night.

After hatching the young bird remains in the burrow and is fed by the parents. At one time it was reported that the adults abandoned the young in the burrow at the end of the feeding period. This is not true and the adults feed the young until they make their way to the sea usually at night. Once at sea the young must find food on their own.

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Freethy, Ron (1987 Auks An Ornithologist’s Guide Facts On File Publications New York

Harrison, Peter (1983) Seabirds an identification guide Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston

Sibley, David (2000) The Sibley Guide to Birds Alfred A. Knopf, New York.              Comments to Webmaster