Fun Facts About Puffins for Kids
Where do puffins build their nests?
Unlike the majority of seabirds, most puffins do not build nests on rocky ledges, but instead they dig burrows high up on grassy cliff-tops. Puffins use both their feet and beaks to dig. It’s hard work so they will also use an old rabbit burrow if the rabbits have left.
Puffins also return to the same home after they have been away for a while. The video below is by the Royal Society For Protection of Birds (RSPB) and shows puffins returning to their burrow at the start of the breeding season.
These puffins breed at Sumburgh Head on the Shetland Isles, which is one of the easiest places in the world to see puffins. The cliffs where they nest are only meters from the road. Gannets and guillemots also live at Sumburgh, so you can see many, many birds.
Puffins return to their burrow
Where do puffins live most of the year?
Most of their lives puffins do not live on land, but far out to sea. They spend all winter on the ocean waves. In April or May each year they come back to their breeding grounds, where they stay until mid August or occasionally till early September. Even then puffins make many trips out to sea to catch fish for themselves and their babies.
Puffins who are too young to breed stay at sea all year.
Puffins are monogamous, so they choose one mate and stay together for life. If however, their mate dies they will “remarry,” choosing a different mate. Puffins begin to nest and breed when they are around 5 or 6 years old, and most live to be about 25. Puffins do not stay with their partner all the time when they are at sea.
Healthy puffins have one chick each year. This chick is called a puffling. The video below, also by the RSPB, shows a puffling hatch from its egg. (The video is a little long; so if you want to see the puffling straight away go forward to 1.20 on the counter.)
Both parents sit on the egg and look after the baby, and unlike many birds, both male and female puffins look the same so it’s hard to know whether this is mother or father with the baby!
It is very rare to see pufflings this young because they are always tucked away in their burrows.
A baby puffin (puffling) being born.
Puffins are extremely clean animals! They have a separate toilet area in their burrow. They build their nest deep in the burrow and the toilet is usually closer to the entrance, sometimes around a bend. The puffling needs to be kept clean because otherwise it will not be able to fly. I think this shows how intelligent puffins are!
Puffins’ beaks and feet
Although people recognize the puffin by its colorful beak, as you can see in the third video, it is born with a dull beak. This gradually changes over the years and by the time it has a brightly colored beak it is ready for mating. After the breeding season, the beaks and feet both fade to a much duller color.
Puffins’ beaks are special for another reason besides color – they have little spines that mean they can hold fish in their mouths and still go on catching more. The most fish that anyone has seen in a puffin's mouth is 62, but more often they will catch about 10.
Atlantic Puffins are known for their colorful beaks and feet
Puffins mainly eat sand eels, which are very small soft fish. If these aren’t available they can also eat other small fish such as herring.
No-fun facts about food scarcity
Sand eels have become scarcer in recent years and so some puffins have not been able to breed or else their babies go hungry and die. Some puffins have tried to feed the pufflings on pipe fish, but these are too hard for the babies to eat and they can choke.
Scientists are not sure why the sand eels have reduced in number so much, but some think it could be because the seas are growing warmer and so eels are moving further north. Scientists have fitted some puffins with GPS devices to see where they are going to hunt for fish and have discovered that they fly very long distances – sometimes as far as 20 miles to get food. They make this trip several times a day. Puffins are not in danger as yet, but their numbers have fallen drastically in every country where they breed. Almost all seabirds are facing the same decline in numbers. To read more about why this might be and what we can do to help, read my article Are Puffins Endangered.
What Predators do Puffins have?
The main natural predators of puffins are large birds such as the black back gulls. The Arctic Skua, which is also known as the bonxsie will also attack puffins, sometimes just stealing their food, but other times killing them.
In some areas rats, mink and cats will attack them.
Are penguins related to puffins?
No. Puffins belong to the auk family of birds. Although penguins look similar to puffins in some ways, they are not auks, but belong to the sphenisciformes group of birds.
While you might find both birds in zoos anywhere, puffins only live naturally in the Northern Hemisphere and penguins only live naturally in the Southern Hemisphere.
How many types of puffin are there?
There are 4 types of puffin. By far the most common is the Atlantic Puffin, which used to be called the Common Puffin. (I wonder why!) Next most common, and by far the strangest looking is the Tufted Puffin, followed by the Horned Puffin, which has a little pointed fleshy horn above its eye. The fourth type of puffin is not usually called a puffin at all, but the Rhinoceros Auklet. (Although just to be confusing, it is sometimes called the Horn-billed puffin.)
All the puffins in the photographs here are Atlantic Puffins. For information on other puffins read Where to Find Puffins Around the World.
Some other names for puffins
Around the world, puffins are known by several different names.
In Scandinavian countries and in Iceland, puffins are called lundi or lunde.
Since Iceland and Norway together have well over half of the world’s population of Atlantic Puffins, there are probably more lundis in the world than there are puffins!
In Norway people used to hunt puffins and bred a dog called the lundehund. (Norwegians no longer hunt puffins.)
In the Shetland and Orkney Islands off Scotland’s northern coast, the name for a puffin is Tammie Norrie. People from elsewhere in Scotland sometimes also sometimes use this name. During the 19th century Tammie Norrie was also a name given to a “stupid looking, bashful man.” Since puffins are also known as the clown of the sea, perhaps this is why they came to be called Tammie Norrie. (Clowns usually act a bit silly, after all!)
Another name puffins are sometimes known by is sea parrot. It’s not hard to see why they got this name!
Questions & Answers
How soon do young puffins develop color in their feathers and/or beak?
It varies from puffin to puffin, but in general, color develops gradually, and will be complete by the time they are ready to breed, which is usually around age five.
Where do puffins live?
From mid-August to mid-April, puffins live at sea. During the breeding season, they live in many places around the world, including both coasts of North America and Northern European coastlines. The UK and Norway have the largest populations in Europe. They also live along the coasts of Japan.
You can read more in my article: Where To See Puffins Around the World.