‘It may look sweet, but the lit­tle bowger de­liv­ers a truly for­mi­da­ble bite’

The portly puf­fin, the ‘lit­tle friar’ of the seabird world, is a fran­tic flyer that spends the first seven weeks of its life be­ing nur­tured deep un­der­ground, re­ports David Pro­fumo

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

ALSO known as the sea par­rot or Flam­bor­ough Head pi­lot, the portly At­lantic puf­fin is prob­a­bly our most ap­peal­ing ma­rine bird and April of­fers the first op­por­tu­nity to see colonies of them in their iconic breed­ing colours as they re­turn from a long win­ter at sea.

Frater­cula arc­tica is a mem­ber of the auk fam­ily, which in­cludes the Manx shear­wa­ter, con­fus­ingly clas­si­fied as Puffi­nus puffi­nus. Its wide North At­lantic range in­cludes im­mense breed­ing colonies in Canada, Ice­land and the Faroes and, in Bri­tain, it can be found on the is­lands of Skomer, Scilly, Shet­land and St Kilda (where it was known as bowger).

Lundy Is­land—lunde is the bird’s Norse name—was once such a strong­hold that it is­sued its own puf­fin stamps, but the pop­u­la­tion ev­ery­where is in se­ri­ous de­cline.

A foot long and weigh­ing less than a pound, the stocky sea par­rot is of­ten de­scribed as ‘clown­ish’, although its black-and-white plumage also sug­gests some­thing ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal— frater­cula means ‘lit­tle friar’.

Both sexes have brown eyes ringed in red, with small, blueish leath­ery or­na­ments that lend them a quizzi­cal look. The huge ser­rated bill is par­ti­coloured red and blue, ridged with yel­low and sports a puck­ered tan­ger­ine rosette at the an­gle of the gape, giv­ing the head the ap­pear­ance of an ac­ci­dent with a Cad­bury Cream Egg (these breed­ing adorn­ments are later moulted). It may look sweet, but the lit­tle bowger de­liv­ers a truly for­mi­da­ble bite.

A fast, but rather fran­tic flier, with short wings that beat about 400 times per minute, and a ten­dency to crash-land on wa­ter, the puf­fin on terra firma wad­dles with a nau­ti­cal roll and re­sem­bles a much-dec­o­rated tin­pot dic­ta­tor in­spect­ing his troops. In Corn­wall, its habit of star­ing out to sea has given rise to the nick­name Lon­doner—a pun on lunde, per­haps, as well as a jibe at gaw­ping clifftop tourists. In 1935, a rare puf­fin was blown off course and per­am­bu­lated along the Strand, stop­ping all traf­fic.

In search of shoal fish—sprats, sandeels, capelin—the puf­fin may for­age some 50 miles off­shore, div­ing deep and ‘fly­ing’ un­der­wa­ter, us­ing its wings like flip­pers and steer­ing with its webbed, co­ral-red feet. When feed­ing its young, the par­ent bird may emerge with nu­mer­ous prey items clamped cross­wise be­tween its den­ti­cles and the grooved tongue, droop­ing like sil­very mous­taches (the record sin­gle haul is 61 sandeels and a rock­ling).

In re­cent years, a rise in sea tem­per­a­tures and the in­dus­trial over-fish­ing of sandeels has re­sulted in per­ilously low rates of chick sur­vival in cer­tain puffin­ries and the bird is now on the red en­dan­gered list.

For a week dur­ing April, they fore­gather in flotil­las off their breed­ing sta­tions be­fore com­ing ashore. Puffins lay eggs in bur­rows that are ex­ca­vated from peat, or even sand­stone, with their beaks—another name, coul­terneb, sig­ni­fies the fore-iron of a plough. Ter­raced slopes are hon­ey­combed with high-rise nest­ing cham­bers which may, oc­ca­sion­ally, be shared with rabbits.

Courtship dis­plays in­clude gap­ing and much clash­ing of bills, but no coo­ing—the puf­fin’s voice is a vaguely hu­manoid, growly sigh (Aar-a-haa) once com­pared with a revving chain­saw. Coition is brief and at sea.

A nest is sel­dom built, the sin­gle, large, dull-white egg be­ing laid in a subter­ranean scrape, which both par­ents de­fend pug­na­ciously dur­ing the 42-day in­cu­ba­tion pe­riod. Black­backed gulls pre­date ea­gerly on young and old coul­ternebs alike.

The puffling chick is fluffy-grey and is nur­tured un­der­ground for seven weeks. It never sees its par­ents in day­light. Even­tu­ally forced by hunger to make its way to sea un­der cover of night, it won’t re­turn to breed for sev­eral years. By Au­gust, they have all left our shores.

How­ever fondly re­garded, puffins have been sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­ploited by man. By spe­cial Pa­pal dis­pen­sa­tion, the lit­tle friar was once deemed enough of a bird-fish to be edi­ble dur­ing Lent; the red flesh (which I pre­fer to guille­mot) is gamey and the fishi­ness largely dis­ap­pears with cook­ing.

The heart, served raw, is a del­i­cacy in Ice­land, where, un­til re­cently, the an­nual har­vest was about 180,000. The tra­di­tional Faroese method for catch­ing the prestur (priest) is sky-fish­ing with a net­ted racket or fley­gus­tong.

On St Kilda, where the bowger pop­u­la­tion was once es­ti­mated at three mil­lion and used to darken the sun like lo­custs, the is­landers used dogs and fowl­ing rods with horse­hair gins. Feath­ers were ex­ported for stuff­ing pil­lows and the womens’ fin­gers some­times be­came so numb thanks to the sheer num­bers that they had to re­sort to pluck­ing with their teeth.

Puf­fin was eaten wind-dried in win­ter or mixed with por­ridge in sum­mer—surely the break­fast of cham­pi­ons?

The bar on re­mote Hirta is called the Puff-inn: it was a long sea voy­age there for me to dis­cover they don’t serve drinks to day vis­i­tors.

‘It may look sweet, but the lit­tle bowger de­liv­ers a truly for­mi­da­ble bite

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