Fratercula cirrhatatufted puffin

Geographic Range

Tufted puffins are Northern Pacific sea birds that spend a majority of the year over the Pacific Ocean, but nest along coastlines from lower California to Alaska, and across the ocean from Japan to the shores of northeastern Asia. (Gaston 1998)


Although puffins spend a majority of the year on the ocean, they build their nests on the shores of islands and coastal regions. They require shores with steep, grassy, sloping land with soil that allows them to burrow. In more rocky areas, puffins build their nests in the rock and on cliff faces. They prefer high places that allow them to swoop down and gain momentum. Their stubby wings make it difficult for them to take flight from water or land without help. They prefer secluded areas where some protection is offered by their surroundings. Their burrows are typically two to six feet long, and four to six inches in diameter. In highly populated colonies, the burrows of two or three of the animals sometimes run together. (Paul 1994, Gaston 1998, Jewett 1953)

Physical Description

Fratercula cirrhata is similar in size to crows, with an average length of 15 inches, and a 15 inch wingspan. Size varies a little from location to location: western Pacific animals tend to be a little larger than eastern ones. There is also a difference in size between the sexes as male birds tend to be slightly larger than females.

In the winter, as puffins prepare for spring breeding, their colors become more decorative, presumably to attract mates. During this time they develop a brownish-black body, with some white feathers lining the underside of the wing, a white face and glossy, yellow plumes above and behind eye. The bill is mostly bright red, with yellow and sometimes green markings. When breeding ends in the early summer, puffins lose their plumes, the bright colors of the bill turn to a dull reddish-brown,and the belly is speckled with some pale brown flecks. Their legs and feet are red or orange-red throughout the year.

Juvenile puffins resemble winter adults, but with a grey-brown breast, white belly, and a shallow, brown bill. (Gaston 1998, Gabrielson 1970)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    700 to 840 g
    24.67 to 29.60 oz
  • Average mass
    760 g
    26.78 oz


During the period prior to egg laying, large groups of puffins congregate off-shore from their nesting colony and engage in intense courtships and frequent copulations. Similar behaviors occur on land at the same time, with puffins courting mates through skypointing (flying straight upwards), strutting, and billing (two birds rubbing their bills together).

Fratercula cirrhata usually begin breeding in April, although mating activity has been seen as early as March and as late as May in some cases.

Each female puffin lays one off-white egg, sometimes with faint blue and brown markings, usually between late April and early June. Eggs produced later than June are unlikely to produce fledglings. The peak egg-laying period usually lasts about two weeks in each colony. Both parents help with incubation, which last betweeen 40 and 53 days.

Once the chicks hatch, their growth rate is variable between colonies and from year to year. The difference is dependent on the feeding conditions of their location. Both parents take turns bringing food to the chicks, which happens two to three times daily, and most frequently in the morning and early evening. Chicks remain in the burrow and rely on their parents until they are fledged, which usually happens 45-55 days after hatching. There is no post-fledging parental care, and the puffling first leaves the nest for the open sea alone and at night. Young puffins usually do not return to the colony for almost two years, spending all their time at sea. Puffins become sexually mature at the age of three, but most do not mate until they're four.

Juveniles moult during their first winter at sea, and again the following autumn. Adult puffins moult completely following the breeding season, and partially before breeding. (Gaston 1998, Kessel 1989, Paul 1994)

  • Breeding interval
    Tufted puffins breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Fratercula cirrhata usually begin breeding in April, although mating activity has been seen as early as March and as late as May in some cases.
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    40 to 53 days
  • Range fledging age
    45 to 55 days
  • Range time to independence
    45 to 55 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3-4 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3-4 years

Both parents incubate, protect, and feed their developing young until they are fledged.

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female



Puffins are highly social animals; they live in large colonies, and fish together in flocks of 10 to 25 birds. When faced with an intruder close to their burrow, puffins open their bills and lower their head, and may follow this action with bill grappling or kicking. When conspecifics fight, they spread their wings, open their mouths wide, stomp their feet, and wrestle with their opponents. Such displays often draw crowds of birds to watch.

Every year puffins over-winter on the ocean. Their waterproof feathers and their ability to drink salt water and catch fish make staying long periods on the sea possible. They disperse widely while at sea but return to the colony where they were born, and usually to the same mate, every year for breeding. It is unknown how they do this, but it is speculated that they use sounds, smells, or visual cues from the sky or the ocean to find their way home. (Gaston 1998, Paul 1994, Kessel 1989)

Communication and Perception

Tufted puffins have a limited range of calls, including a low grumbling noise heard usually from underground in breeding colonies. Chicks often peep to indicate that they want food. They use postures and other physical cues to communicate as well.

They use unknown cues for finding their way back from the vastness of the open ocean to the nesting colonies in which they were born.

Food Habits

Tufted puffins are primarily offshore feeders. During nesting, and when food is in abundance, they may feed inshore. The diet of chicks is almost entirely small fish, while the adults' diets are more diverse. Adults prey mostly on anchovies and other small fish, but also eat squid, octopus, crabs, zooplankton, and jellyfish.

When hunting for fish, puffins usually attack fish in schools.

Puffins fly very close the the water and feed by diving under the water catching their prey in their mouths. They can stay underwater for 20 to 30 seconds using their wings to swim. When taking food to their young, they usually hold about 10 fish in their mouths while returning to the nest, but they have been observed carrying up to 6o fish in their bills at one time. Puffins use their tongues to hold fish against the spiny palate in their mouth while opening their beak to catch more fish. (Arctic Studies Center 1997, Jewett 1953, Gaston 1998)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • cnidarians
  • zooplankton


Tufted puffins protect their young by nesting on offshore islands and in burrows. Adults are swift in flight and spend much of their time in the open ocean. Puffins may be preyed on by sharks and other large seabirds.

Ecosystem Roles

Puffins are important predators of small fish and marine invertebrates in the areas in which they live.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Tufted puffins were historically hunted for food. Hunting puffins is discouraged nowadays in most places, and forbidden by law in others, but people who do still hunt them try to capture only non-breeding animals. In the past, skins were used to make tough parkas worn feather side in. Puffins are also used as tourist attractions for communities near healthy colonies, but visitors must watch the birds from the ocean. Because human disturbances may cause puffins to leave their nesting sites, people are often prohibited from landing at nesting sites. Puffins are also indicators of a healthy ocean, and show humans when over-fishing is occuring. When there are fewer fish in the ocean, puffins bring a noticeably reduced amount of fish ashore. (Paul 1994, Kessel 1989)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • ecotourism

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Fratercula cirrhata does no harm to humans. Puffins will only harm people when they intrude on their nesting sites. They have a beak strong enough to bite through a human finger to the bone. (Lockley 1953)

Conservation Status

Fratercula cirrhata is not a threatened species, but in some locations its numbers are decreasing. In Alaska, they are highly abundant, but the seabird colonies of Alaska are protected by federal and state laws. Also, a permit is often required to land on islands where puffins are nesting. In the puffin colonies along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington, population size has been declining since the beginning of the century due to decreasing numbers of fish, ocean pollution, and oil spills. As with most species, puffins have fallen victim to the expansion of humans. To attempt to make up for human takeover of land that was once used for puffin nesting, some programs have been set up to restore of former nesting colonies and help reduce the risk to populations by establishing more nesting sites. (Paul 1994, Small 1994)

Other Comments

Tufted Puffins have three major predators: Snowy Owls, Bald Eagles, and Arctic Foxes. Puffins try to select habitats that will be difficult for foxes to reach, and laying their eggs in burrows makes them inaccessible to the predator. However, foxes seem to prefer the puffin over other birds, making the bird a main target. (Gaston, 1998, Jewett 1953)


Katie Stirling (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).


an animal that mainly eats fish

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


uses sight to communicate


animal constituent of plankton; mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae. (Compare to phytoplankton.)


Gabrielson, I. 1970. Birds of the Pacific Northwest. New York: Dover Publications, Inc..

Gaston, A., I. Jones. 1998. The Auks. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kessel, B. 1989. Birds of Alaska. New York: University of Alaska Press.

Lockley, R. 1953. Puffins. London: J.M. Dent and Sons.

No author, 1997. ""Puffin" Arctic Studies Center" (On-line). Accessed March 15, 2000 at

Paul, T., W. Lehnhausen, S. Quinlan. 1994. ""Puffins" ADF&G Wildlife Notebook Series" (On-line). Accessed March 20, 2000 at

Small, A. 1994. California Birds, Status and Distribution. New York: IBIS Publishing.