Wildlife of the Week!

© Five Star Whale Watching/Andrew Lees. A Tufted Puffin soars above the surface of the waves in the Salish Sea.

Welcome to Wildlife of the Week. Continuing on our seabird trend, we are excited to showcase a fascinating (and adorable) creature! This bird is related to Auks and Murres, and is a charming species to the Salish Sea. You may have seen one of its relatives, the Rhinoceros Auklet, also in these waters. Generally “crow-sized”, the Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) is not one of the largest seabirds, but it is easily spotted with its distinct bill and plumage. Has anyone seen this puffin before? If so, where? Share with us in the comments below! To learn more about this fantastic bird, read on below!

The Tufted Puffin ranges in size of 36-40cm in length and weighs between half a kilogram to a kilogram. Males and females are not dimorphic in size. Their bills and heads are large and round, and plumage varies between the breeding and non-breeding (and/or immature) forms. Therefore, the breeding forms are dark and uniformly black, with a triangular white portion on the face, thin blonde side plumes, and a bright orange/ red bill (with a short yellow covering). The non-breeding adult and immature form are instead a gray color completely, and lack both the bill covering and blonde plumage. Eye colour, however, varies between the immature form and non-breeding form.

The bird is larger than other puffin species but smaller than some other seabird species in the Salish Sea (e.g. Heron). The bird is required to exert a fair amount of energy to begin flying. It has a relatively stocky profile and appears low to the water when floating or swimming. 

This seabird has both a coastal breeding range and a pelagic non-breeding range in the North Pacific. Both stretch in latitude from north of Alaska to northern California, the non-breeding range believed to stretch to southern California. They also are believed to reside around the coasts of Russia and Japan. Within its range, it commonly frequents islands to form burrows. It may also be spotted in open waters along coastal cliffs/slopes/crevices and even on the ground around vegetation. As mentioned, the breeding range is focused more inland (including near islands) and nearshore, compared to the non-breeding range which extends into more open waters. These ranges do not appear to overlap significantly. 

The bird is a talented surface diver and swimmer, and, because it depends largely on fish, this is critical to feeding. By entering the water at a significant speed and force, the bird can dive underwater and propel itself using its strong wings (going up to 200 feet deep). They will seek large schools of fish and pluck out prey using their bill. Small, oily schooling fish appear to be a significant dietary portion (species such as sandlance, capelin). The seabird may also seek other varieties of fish (such as rockfish), and even crustaceans, mollusks and echinoderms (e.g. urchin). The bird has even been seen to feed on algae. When looking at the large, rounded bill you might wonder how exactly this feature is used. In a remarkable display of functionality, the bird’s bill can accommodate between 5-20 fish at a time. 

Tufted Puffin parents, like many other seabirds, incubate, raise and feed chicks cooperatively. Burrows, or nests, are mostly dug into the ground to depths of several metres. These burrows are typically found on treeless islands with the rest of the breeding colony. Generally speaking, these burrows or nests are nestled in cliff slopes, cliffs, grassy areas, between crevices and boulders or under cover of vegetation. They are created by both parents. Their bill’s usability is important when feeding chicks, as caught fish can easily be brought to the nest.

Within the species, it has been recorded that there are typically one, sometimes, two, broods/ year with one egg each. The young are usually independent at about a month and a half (6-7 weeks), but may not fly immediately when leaving the nest. 

Compared to its relative, the Horned Puffin, this species is believed to encompass a larger foraging distance from its nesting site. The Tufted Puffin is not believed to be at high risk currently, but anthropogenic impacts can still negatively affect the seabird. On some small-range areas such as islands, this type of puffin has been extirpated. Reasons for population deaths or extirpation are majorly tied to introduced terrestrial predators such as foxes.

Drift-nets, pollution (e.g. oil spills) and fishing bycatch unfortunately are also to the detriment of Tufted Puffin survival. In Californian regions, populations believe to have decreased dramatically. Generally, the population is believed to number in a healthy range of over several million individuals worldwide. 

If you are feeling like a Tufted Puffin expert, try out some trivia below! 

  1. What is a common nickname for the Tufted Puffin, based on its colorful plumage? (ANS: “Sea parrot”, “Clown of the sea”). 
  2. True or False? The Tufted Puffin’s bill will morph into a dull grey color in the wintertime. (ANS: True).  
  3.  This puffin may flap its wings up to _____ times/ minute! (ANS: 400). 

BONUS CHALLENGE: 

Programs that have aimed to reintroduce the puffin to previous habitats have been ____? (Unsuccessful, successful). 

They have been very successful for the species. 

Authored By: Alexa D./ Five Star Whale Watching

Read on with our References to learn more! 

BirdLife International. 2018. Fratercula cirrhata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22694934/132582357#geographic-range

“Everything you ever wanted to know about tufted puffins.” 2018. National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. https://marinesanctuary.org/blog/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-tufted-puffins/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwit_8BRCoARIsAIx3Rj4Wgph9yvX0YFD39v3ABmT71seBX5N3L17w1_Py7xl1pXGgrH2QywMaAhwjEALw_wcB

“Puffin facts.” National Geographic Kids. Creature Media Ltd. https://www.natgeokids.com/uk/discover/animals/birds/puffin-facts/

“Tufted Puffin.” All About Birds. The Cornell Lab. Cornell University. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tufted_Puffin/lifehistory#.  


“Tufted Puffin.” Guide to North American Birds. National Audubon Society. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/tufted-puffin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *