‘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
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