With their upright stance, smart black and white ‘tuxedo’ and brightly-coloured bills filled with fish, everybody loves puffins. But there are aspects of their lives that we are only just beginning to understand. Let’s learn more from Dr Euan Dunn, the RSPB’s Principal Policy Officer on marine issues and a puffin fan.
Puffin and its 'puffling' by Adrian Ewart
Breeding puffins touch the sense of theatre, comedy and community in us all, but this feeling of connectedness is confined to just four months - April to August - during which these seabirds are obliged to be landlubbers in order to raise young. The other two-thirds of the year they are in their true element, riding out the high seas, off-stage and off-camera.
When the adults abandon the colony, they undergo a remarkable makeover, shedding their bright bill-plates, along with the eye ornamentation responsible for that quizzical look. With other gaudy paraphernalia shrinking or fading, little wonder that in centuries past the wintering puffin was thought to be a separate species! Outside the breeding season, then, the adult looks a bit more like its monochrome offspring.
In the colony, you might be lucky enough to spot such a chick venturing to the burrow mouth to explore the world it will soon join. It finally quits the burrow at night, the better to avoid marauding gulls and skuas, and makes a beeline for the sea.
Puffling at sea by John Anderson
Unlike the guillemot and razorbill chick which is chaperoned to sea by a parent to learn the ropes, the puffin is utterly independent of its parents the moment it flees the burrow, programmed to fend for itself and perfect the art of diving to catch sandeels and other fish deep below the surface.
If this sounds heroic, its parents’ post-breeding exploits are no less impressive, with rapidly developing electronic tracking technology revealing migration on a breathtaking scale from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Tiny devices called geolocators attached to a leg ring show that some birds from an Irish colony even headed to Newfoundland to exploit a feeding hotspot.
Adult puffin wearing a ring with geolocator by Dave Boyle
We have never had much insight into whether pair-members stick together when they migrate, but a new geolocator study from Skomer Island shows that some pairs do have similar migration routes. Such pairs then bred earlier and more successfully when they returned to the island the following spring than ones that had gone their separate ways in winter.
So the puffin is more than just a pretty face, it’s also a sophisticated globe-trotting mariner.
You can buy Euan’s book, RSPB Spotlight: Puffins, from our shop at £9.99.