Tufted Puffin

Bird of the Month: Tufted Puffin

By Andrew McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Tufted Puffin)

PC: Mick Thompson (Tufted Puffin)

Scientific Name: Fratercula cirrhata

Length 15" long

Wingspan 25"

Weight 1.7 lb (780 g)

AOU Band code TUPU

The Tufted Puffin is a dramatic looking bird. Its bulky bright orange bill, striking white mask and spectacular blond feather tufts streaming back along the sides of its head contrast with dark black feathers on the rest of the bird. It is excellent swimmer capable of deep dives of up to two minutes in length. Although it is a fast flyer it can have difficulty taking off from the water and sometimes has to make several attempts to get airborne. It has a much easier time launching itself from a cliff edge.

The world population of Tufted Puffins is steady at around 3,000,000 individuals. Over 80% of these birds are in North America and over 90% of N.A. birds are in Alaska (Piatt & Kitaysky). Many breed in the Aleutian Islands and neighboring small islands. In May the Tufted Puffin returns to the breeding grounds which in Washington are found along the northwest coast in places near La Push and Protection Island. They also breed as far south as California and there is a very accessible breeding site for observation at Cannon Beach in Oregon, where the birds nest on the famous Haystack Island.

Puffins nest in large colonies in burrows dug in the grassy areas along cliffs on offshore islands. The burrows which are dug by both sexes with feet and bill are from two to seven feet long. The female deposits a single egg directly on the ground or in an area with a thin lining of grass.  Incubation lasts about 40 days. Both adults make hunting forays and return with fish for the young, typically providing four meals a day. It takes another 6-7 weeks for the young to fledge with development highly dependent on the amount of food the young receives (Kaufman).

The Tufted Puffin is our largest puffin and is also the most pelagic of the alcids (Family Alcidae, from the Norse for auk) ranging far from land after the nesting period in search of food. Little is known about juvenile birds as they are thought to move to the north central Pacific Ocean for 1-2 years before returning to the coastal islands to breed, possibly in their third year. This long maturation period and the single egg per breeding pair put the survival of colonies at risk from predators such as snakes, rats, gulls, etc.  Populations appear to be increasing in the Gulf of Alaska and westward and declining in SE Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California (Piatt & Kitaysky).

The Tufted Puffin is in the genus Fratercula, little brother or friar, referring to the hooded appearance of the head plumage reminiscent of hooded friar robes. Its species name cirrhata, curly headed, is actually a misspelling of the Latin cirrata, and refers to the golden tufts of feathers that make this bird so distinctive. The derivation of the common name puffin is uncertain (Holloway). Tufted Puffins were once hunted by Aleuts and Tlingit people for their meat and hides. They made parkas from about 45 skins with the feathers kept inside. The bills were used to make hand rattles and to decorate ceremonial aprons (Bent).