Habitat – rocky coasts and islands
Niche – migratory diving bird
Favorite Food – small fish
Length – about a foot
Weight – around a pound
Status – Common
Threats – overfishing, climate change
With their magnificent striped beaks, mournful eyes, and bright orange legs, Atlantic puffins are unmistakable seabirds. They’re also among the most common, nesting in giant colonies in the North Atlantic during the mating season. Puffins are diving birds, at home in the water as much as on rocky land, thanks to a streamlined body and webbed feet.
The Atlantic puffin’s bill is its most striking feature, and it changes color depending on the time of the year. During mating season, it is brilliant red, yellow, and blue before fading in late summer. For all its glamour, the Atlantic puffin’s bill is more than just for show. The bird uses it to clamp down on slippery fish when diving for food. Puffins are able to secure their catches with their tongue to the upper mandible, keeping their lower mandible free to snare more. This adaptation allows the birds to hold dozens of fish in their mouth before swallowing. The record number of fish crammed into a puffin’s mouth at one time is an astonishing 62.
As with other migratory seabirds, the mating season for Atlantic puffins is a crowded affair. Real estate for nest building and rearing young is limited, so puffins pile into colonies without much room between mating couples. To help protect the delicate eggs from unscrupulous neighbors, puffins will use their bills and feet to dig short burrows lined with feathers and bits of plant material. This method of egg rearing also helps protect their nest from predatory birds that circle puffin colonies looking for openings to snatch eggs.
Atlantic puffins are common birds, but their numbers depend on plentiful fishing stocks in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Overfishing and impact on the marine food chain can affect even the most resilient seabirds if left unchecked.