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Do puffins (once paired) stay with their mate for life?

Sent in by Emma Casbon, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Puffins usually breed with the same mate each year and will reuse the same nest site. However, it is not known whether the breeding pairs stay together over the winter.

Puffins spend about six months at sea. They begin returning to their breeding colonies in March. On their return, they will spend a week or two offshore before coming on to land. During this period, they can be seen performing a courtship display. This involves billing where two birds will tap their bills together.

This billing display may not be between a breeding pair. It is unlikely the birds could recognise each other amongst the thousands of other birds on the water. It is also unlikely the birds could stay in contact throughout the long period at sea during the winter. This billing on the water is likely to be birds engaged in casual flirtations.

Most seabirds meet up again with their traditional partners when they return to their nest site or territory. This is probably true for puffins. Once the pair is back together, they will start billing to reinforce the bond. They will then start breeding in April.

If one of the pair does not arrive at the nest site then the remaining bird will probably hold that site and try to attract a new mate.

Most puffins start breeding when they are five years old and often live for more than 20 years. Some young, inexperienced birds may change mates after breeding failures but most will mate with the same partner for many years.

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