The Ap­peal of the Puf­fin

With their large mul­ti­coloured bills, these adorable birds have been called the clowns of the sea

More of Our Canada - - Critters - by Mary Fla­ment, Dun­das, Ont.

My hus­band Andy and I are not se­ri­ous bir-watch­ers, al­though we do en­joy ob­serv­ing them. Over time, from near and far, Andy has pho­tographed a wide range of bird species. we find it es­pe­cially ex­cit­ing to dis­cover unique birds found only in cer­tain lo­cales, and re­cently while on hol­i­day in New­found-land, we added an­other -first-tinier to our list—the At­lantic puf­fin. Dur­ing the warmer months. New­found­land hosts mil­lions of birds, in­clud­ing thou­sands of At­lantic puffins. I was sur­prised to learn these birds spend most of their lives out at sea and their role while on land is for breed­ing pur­poses only. While the ways of na­ture are of­ten amaz­ing and should be rm­pected. I can­not help but pity im­ma­ture puffins who are too young to mate, for they must live out on the open ocean un­til full ma­tu­rity is reached and that could take four or five years! While it is usu­ally a bird's plumage that changes with the on­set of its breed­ing sea­son, it is oddly dif­fer­ent for At­lantic puffins. For them, it is their beaks and feet. From ap­proxi-mately April to Au­gust, their beaks are more bril­liant in colour and their feet a brighter or­ange, but be­fore win­ter ar­rives, both these fea­tures will dull con­sid­er­ably. In fact when the brel Im­age 1 sea­son ends, INE shed their colour­ful outer bills and for the next while have no­tice­ably smaller and duller beaks. Un­like most bird species puf­fin gen­ders look alike al­though males tend to be slightly larger. A first glimpse at puffins and one might imaffine Mother Na­ture mix­ing to­gether two ex­treme world re­gions—pen-guins from the icy north and to wan-like birds from the steamy trop­ics. And yet puffins are not kin to ei­ther. Al­though puffins and pen­guins both like eat­ing fish. are ex­cel-lent swim­mers, have mostly black and white feath­ers and a sim­i­lar wad­dle when walk­ing, they are not of the same species. One ma­jor dif­fer­ence be­tween the two is pen­guins can­not fly, whereas puffins can. And yet, any­one at­tempt­ing to photo-graph a puf­fin in flight is in for a mighty chal­lenge. Fly­ing high in the sky they ap­pear to be fran­ti­cally flap­ping their wings (about 400 times per minute, we were told) and have been clocked at speeds of 85 kilome-tres an hour. Its true that puffins and tou­cans both have big, beau­ti­ful beaks.

How­ever, the tou­can’s bill is larger and shaped dif­fer­ently. In fact, a tou­can’s beak can be one-third or even one-half of its en­tire body length, com­pared to the puf­fin’s more pro­por­tion­ately sized beak. Aside from this, the most sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween them is their diet. Puffins are birds who de­pend en­tirely on the sea for food. Their meals con­sist mostly of small fish and crus­taceans. Tou­cans, on the other hand are trop­i­cal birds who live on fruit, in­sects and small reptiles. Un­der­stand­ably, each bird sur­vives on the con­di­tions of its en­vi­ron­ment.

From lit­er­ally thou­sands of bird species world­wide, it is the auk group­ing that At­lantic puffins be­long to. The fam­ily of auks in­cludes a va­ri­ety of puffins and other birds like the ra­zor­bill, guille­mots, mur­res, auk­lets and mur­relets. (Sadly, in 1944, the very last great auk was killed, thus wip­ing out this species and ren­der­ing it ex­tinct. It was the largest bird within the auk fam­ily.)

While in New­found­land on a boat tour, we learned a great deal about At­lantic puffins. We were told that many seabirds choose rocky cliffs to make tra­di­tional-look­ing nests, but puf­fin nests are ac­tual bur­rows, made in the grassy or sandy part of the cliff. These dwellings are ap­prox­i­mately 36 inches in size and lined with items such as grass, feath­ers, sea­weed and moss. Puffins are ex­cep­tion­ally good divers and swim­mers and use these skills ex­pertly to ob­tain food. A unique tal­ent of At­lantic puffins is their abil­ity to catch and hold nu­mer­ous fish in their mouths at one time. They have rough sand­pa­per-like tongues and tiny spikes inside their up­per beaks that help to keep fish from fall­ing out. We also learned they are a monog­a­mous bird, who re­turn to and nest in the same lo­ca­tion year after year. The fe­male lays a sin­gle egg, which both mates take turns in­cu­bat­ing. The chick (some­times re­ferred to as a puffling) hatches ap­prox­i­mately 40 days later. Then, for an­other six or so weeks, the par­ents take turns bring­ing food to their young­ster.

With mil­lions of birds vis­it­ing New­found­land and Labrador in spring and sum­mer, it’s un­der­stand­able the province is of­ten re­ferred to as the Seabird Cap­i­tal of North Amer­ica. In 1991, the gov­ern­ment de­cided to select a bird to of­fi­cially rep­re­sent the province. I wasn’t sur­prised to learn puffins had won by a ma­jor­ity but won­dered why it was cho­sen over

loons and ospreys, the two main con­tenders. Was it be­cause most of North Amer­ica’s At­lantic puffins breed around New­found­land and Labrador coasts, mak­ing them unique and spe­cial to that province? Or, maybe their colour­ful ap­pear­ance and comic per­son­al­ity was thought to be more en­dear­ing, thus mak­ing them a more ap­peal­ing tourism im­age. In the end, per­haps it was com­mon­al­ity that pushed them into first place. Puffins are well known as hardy birds who can en­dure frigid, snowy winters out on bit­terly cold northern wa­ters. And, New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans are known his­tor­i­cally as ro­bust folk with a strong mar­itime her­itage. Ul­ti­mately, choos­ing the At­lantic puf­fin as the pro­vin­cial bird seems sym­bol­i­cally fit­ting. ■

Mary’s hus­band Andy cap­tured the pics above when the cou­ple va­ca­tioned in New­found­land.

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