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What Do You Know about Atlantic Puffins?
  • Atlantic puffins are funny-looking seabirds!
    Steve Deschênes

What Do You Know about Atlantic Puffins?

The Atlantic or common puffin (Fratercula arctica), nicknamed “sea parrot” or “clown of the sea,” is a seabird in the auk family (Alcidae) that is only found in the northern hemisphere. By travelling to our regions, you will have the opportunity to observe this bird in Côte-Nord and the Îles de la Madeleine.

Atlantic puffins are easy to identify: their broad and triangular parrot-like beaks have orange, yellow and slate-grey markings, while their legs and webbed feet are bright orange. Their faces are distinctive as well: their eyes appear triangular because of a peaked area of horny blue-grey skin above them and a rectangular patch below. The eye itself is surrounded by an orange marking and within a large greyish white patch. They also have yellow fleshy rosettes at the base of their bills. The upper parts of their bodies (top of the head, back and wings) are black, while their underbellies are white. Males and females have identical colouring.

Atlantic puffins are about 30 cm (12 in.) high, similar in size to pigeons. They have small wings and are poor fliers. As a result, they have difficulty becoming airborne and must flap their wings very fast (300 to 400 beats per minute) to maintain flight. They also have trouble landing and often crash on land or water. On land, puffins stand upright and generally move by hopping.

Puffins spend most of their time at sea, swimming, diving and feeding on small marine animals, mainly fish such as capelin and sand lance. They are very well adapted to swimming underwater. Their long compact bodies are streamlined and strong; they also have short wings and powerful wing muscles. Their bills and heads cut through the water, while their legs and feet act as rudders. Every year, generally between April and August, they breed on land, but even then, they spend a lot of time in the water.

Breeding usually begins at about four or five years of age. Females lay a single egg, which both mates take turns incubating. Chicks normally leave the nest after about 40 days, usually under the protection of darkness, by dropping over the edge of a cliff. By morning they are at sea, often far from the colony. Fledglings are particularly vulnerable because they are unprotected by their parents, exposed to predators and easily disoriented by lights. Puffin couples mate for life and return to the same burrow year after year. They can live about 25 years.

Atlantic puffins are at risk from great black-backed gulls, which attack the adults, and herring gulls, which tend to attack the fledglings. Each year, hundreds of puffins also get caught in fishing nets. In addition, they are vulnerable to oil spills since they spend most of their lives in water. Worldwide, Atlantic puffin population estimates range from 6 to 8 million; about half a million are found in Canada.

Now that you know so much about Atlantic puffins, you surely want to see them for yourself! In the maritime regions of Québec, you can observe Atlantic puffins on Brion Island, in the Îles de la Madeleine, as well as in the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, in Côte-Nord. In both cases, you will go on a boat excursion with a naturalist guide to encounter these funny-looking seabirds!

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