How do young puffins locate their natal breeding colonies after years at sea?
Puffins start to breed at age three or four, and a substantial number (about 60 per cent) return to their natal colony to raise a family, after spending their early years at sea.
How they locate their home turf from thousands of miles away is still a mystery. When youngsters are ready to leave their nesting burrows, they take to the wing alone, often at night, with no adult to guide them. It’s unlikely they follow fellow birds home, as puffins are mostly solitary over winter, and it’s doubtful that they have a genetic memory of the colony’s location.
Instead, puffins probably learn to navigate using celestial clues, and perhaps even smells, following the stars like a compass based on recognition of patterns learned in early life. On clear nights, puffin chicks sometimes spend time sitting beside their burrow entrances. Perhaps they are stargazing in preparation for the arduous journeys ahead. Ellie Owen
Puffins fledge after a maximum of 60 days in the burrow – and then they’re on their own.