Puffins: the ‘clowns of the sea’

Atlantic puffin pairs mate for life and share parental responsibilities. Small, sturdy and utterly unmistakeable, the Atlantic (a.k.a. common) puffin is a member of the auk family of sea birds that breeds in and around Iceland.

Called ‘lundi’ in Icelandic, the bird, with its cute, waddling walk and penguin-like colours juxtaposed with a colourful beak that changes from orange to grey from summer to winter, is also fondly known as the clown of the sea, or the sea parrot. One of its Icelandic nicknames is prófatsur, which means preacher, due to its priest-like ‘outfit’ and clumsy mannerisms.

Puffins are a mainstay of souvenir stores, which is perhaps little wonder, given that over 60 percent of the world’s puffin population nests in Iceland. Usually found between May and August, there are several large and small puffin colonies across the country.

Here’s a compilation of some fun facts on the puffin, which has also been a source of food and nourishment for people since Iceland was settled over a thousand years ago.

The lone ranger at sea

A swimmer and diver par excellence, this little waterfowl can dive up to 60 metres, can flap its wings 400 times per minute, and can fly at speeds of up to 80 km an hour. The reason they need to flap their wings so fast is because their bones are not hollow, and this means they are considerably heavier than other birds. This is also the reason they can dive down as far as they do.

Largely living in solitary splendour while out at sea, the puffin bobs around most of the year, enjoying meals of herring and sand eels. The bird’s downy under plumage has a dual purpose: to keep it warm and provide the perfect camouflage against any underwater predators who can’t quite distinguish the puffin from the dark watery background. Similarly, aerial predators are hard pressed to find the puffin as it blends with the colours of the sky. While at sea, the birds spread out widely across the North Atlantic Ocean. Each bird has more than a square kilometre all to itself, so it is somewhat lucky to spot a puffin on the open sea in winter—especially because their bright summer colours fade to dull grey.

Changing colours of survival

As mentioned above, the bird looks different at different points in the year. At the end of the breeding season, their white feathers become dark grey and their beaks also change, becoming narrower with a bright tip. When spring returns, so do the gay colours. However, most humans only see the puffin at its colourful best because it spends over 8 months out at sea-only coming ashore to breed and raise its pufflings.

Monogamy ain’t monotony

Ever heard the term ‘flighty as a bird?’ Evidently, it wasn’t meant for the puffins, given the fact that they have the same mate for years on end and return to the same burrows year after year. Plus, they are committed parents with carefully allotted roles: the male is entrusted with the guarding and maintenance of their little home while the female incubates in peace.

Only child, but far from spoilt

The female lays a single egg every spring and the chick is reared in a disciplined and structured sequence. While mummy and daddy feed the young one on small fish, they expect it to become independent by day 40 and will leave it to fend for itself. Hunger forces the little one out of its burrow. It will walk, run or flap its wings before it leaves for sea—not to return to land for several days. Talk about tough love and no-nonsense parenting. It is quite common to see the confused and bewildered chicks wandering the streets of the Westman Islands in late summer.

Colonising cliff tops

In late spring, thousands of puffins form large colonies on coastal cliff tops, coming together for the breeding season. To make their nests, known as burrows, they clean out and affect repairs to one of the many burrows in the turf or soil where they lay their single egg. Many of the burrows have been used every year for a very long time.

Long live the puffin

Compared to other birds, this is one long lived avian, with an average life span of 20 to 25 years. Amazingly, the oldest recorded puffin lived up to 38 years!

Sadly enough, in 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature termed its status as ‘vulnerable’. Ditto in 2018, when Bird Life International reported that the Atlantic puffin was threatened with extinction.

Some of the causes of population decline may be increased predation by gulls and skuas, the introduction of rats, cats, dogs, and foxes onto some islands used for nesting, contamination by toxic residues, or drowning in fishing nets. In the Westman Islands where about half Iceland’s puffins breed, the birds were almost driven to extinction by overharvesting around 1900 and a 30-year ban on hunting was put in place. When stocks recovered, a different method of harvesting was used and now hunting is maintained at a responsible level. Nevertheless, a further hunting ban covering the whole of Iceland was called for in 2011, although the puffin’s lack of recent breeding success was being blamed on a reduction in food supply rather than overharvesting.
Indeed, it seems likely that the biggest cause of population change by far has been declining food supplies and severe changes in climate.

After several years of almost totally failed breeding seasons, during which the puffin’s long lifespan proved critical in giving it more time to keep trying again, recent years have seen some better news for the birds. More puffins are again able to find enough food to successfully raise young and ensure the species’ survival, for now.

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