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