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Fratercula cirrhata - Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin image

Geographic range:

North Pacific and West coast of North America

Key features:

Body all black with dark belly; large, triangular orange bill; golden head-tufts in breeding plumage, primarily pelagic


exposed rocky shore, pelagic zone

Primary common name:

Tufted Puffin

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

The Tufted Puffin has an extensive breeding range; nesting on coastlines and offshore islands of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Gulf of Alaska, Aleutians, Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, Kurils, and Bering and Chukchi Seas. It winters over a broad area of the North Central Pacific, east to west from the California Current to the Kuroshio Current of Japan, generally over deep oceanic waters.


exposed rocky shore, pelagic zone


Relative abundance:

The Tufted Puffin may be seen in MBNMS year round, but it is rare. One to two may be seen on pelagic trips in the fall. Shore observations from Pt. Pinos are also possible, especially if it is windy. It is abundant in Alaska. The total world population estimate is 2,970,000 individuals, of which more than 80% nest in North America. In Alaska, there are 693 breeding colonies with an estimated population of 2,280,000 individuals. Population estimates are unreliable due to the difficulty of counting birds in nesting burrows. Owing to variability among census counts or to low numbers of counts, or both, calculated trends are marginal or insignificant in half of the studies. However, results suggest that populations are increasing in the Gulf of Alaska and westward and declining throughout Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California.

Species Description

General description:

The Tufted Puffin is the largest of the puffins (3), about the size of a pigeon, but weighing nearly twice as much. In flight the short neck is retracted into their shoulders giving them a silhouette like a flying cigar, moving quickly with rapid and direct flight close to the water. It is a stocky, large-headed, dark seabird, sturdy and capable looking, but also a bit comical. The top if its head is very round and dome-shaped. Its wings are comparatively short, stubby, and broad terminally, giving the outstretched wing a hand-like appearance: good for swimming underwater but not as efficient for flying, requiring rapid wing beats of up to 400/minute but able to reach speeds up to 40 mph. In nonbreeding plumage they are solid brown-black with a triangular shaped, large, (approximately 40 mm long by 30 mm deep), laterally compressed orange bill. In breeding season the bill enlarges to about 50 mm by 40mm and develops a variable number of grooves on the upper mandible and bright-orange rosettes at the base of its gape (where the upper and lower bill join at the head) which extend laterally into its white mask.The bright red-orange bill also develops an orangish-yellow to buff to olive-green plate over the base of the upper mandible. The head develops a white mask from the base of the bill to the back of the head with golden plumes (tufts) developing behind each eye and above the ear, long enough to drape down their head and neck toward their shoulders, giving them a very "punk" appearance. The mandibular plate is not present in non breeding plumage nor is the white face mask (which turns gray-brown) or the golden plumes. The orange rosettes also disappear. A small black cap remains on the top of the head. The yellow eye has a thin red orbital ring. The legs and feet are bright orange. It swims (paddling with webbed feet on the surface, but "flying" underwater using strong wing beats for propulsion and webbed feet to steer) and can take off from water after gaining adequate speed using feet as paddles until airborne. Before landing at its colony it will circle several times. It is awkward when landing, often crashing into tall grass, rocks, and talus slopes. When departing it uses angled slopes or elevated rocks for a take-off point or walks to the edge of a cliff to initiate flight. It walks upright on its toes over rocks, clinging to the surface with strong nails which are also used to dig burrows. It can also hop. The immature Tufted Puffin resembles the nonbreeding adult, with dusky, rather than yellow, eyes. The Tufted Puffin can be distinguished from other puffins by its dark belly. Tufted puffins are silent at sea and near their colony are not very vocal but will give a low rumbling, groaning noise usually heard from underground coming from their burrows. The call of the adults has been described as a low growling "errr", either single or repeated several times, especially if disturbed. When at rest in the colony a low purring sound has been heard. Most vocalization takes place during daytime activity period, both at colony and on water. Chicks peep continuously to indicate that they want food. Well fed chicks with crops full of food make a sound described as "uiiiep, uiiiep, uiiiep". They also use postures and other physical cues to communicate.

Distinctive features:

Black body, dark belly, large bright red-orange bill, orange legs and feet In breeding season the Tufted Puffin has long, golden tufts that curve backward from their red-ringed eyes. Pelagic most of the year.


The male is slightly larger Length 14.215.7 in (3640 cm) Wingspan 25-29.1 in (63.5-74 cm) Weight 18.335.3 oz (5201000 g)

Natural History

General natural history:

Tufted Puffins are pelagic and spend most of their lives bobbing along great distances from land in the North Pacific Ocean. They are highly social and live in large colonies on steep, rocky islands and mainland cliffs during breeding season, and fish singly or in flocks of 10 to 25 birds. Every year they over-winter on the ocean. Their waterproof feathers and their ability to fish and process salt water make staying long periods at sea possible. In the spring they return to the colony where they were born to mate. They are considered to be monogamous and usually find their mate from previous years. (They reach maturity at three years of age.) Their life span is believed to be 15 to 20 years. The climate throughout their breeding range is cool (less than 15 degrees C), wet (persistent rain and fog), and overcast during the summer. Heavy rainfall may flood their nesting burrows and limits their use of some islands. (see Seasonal Behavior Reproduction for more details.)


Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Snowy Owls, and Eagle Owls prey on adult Tufted Puffins during breeding season. Large gulls and ravens prey on chicks and occasionally eggs. Sharks also take chicks and adult Tufted Puffins. Arctic and red fox kill and store adults, eggs, and chicks. River otters and brown bears can destroy puffin breeding habitat as they search for eggs and chicks. Rats and humans also disturb breeding sites.


The diet of the Tufted Puffin is similar to that of shearwaters and petrels. They take anchovies, capelin, lanternfish, rockfish, greenling, sandlance, juvenile pollock, silverside, herring, krill, zooplankton, squid, amphipods, crabs, jellyfish, euphausiids, and also algae. Interestingly, diets almost always include small numbers of bottom fish, particularly sculpins and flatfish, perhaps confirming speculation that Tufted Puffins spend some time searching the bottom.

Feeding behavior


Feeding behavior notes:

Tufted Puffins are primarily offshore feeders, feeding during the day and at dusk, often in small groups (10 -25), and often in association with other fish-feeding seabirds such as shearwaters, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Murres, Horned Puffins, and Rhinoceros Auklets. In Alaska they forage widely offshore in continental shelf and slope waters. In California and British Columbia they forage over continental shelf slope. During nesting, and when food is abundant they may feed inshore. The chick is fed a wide variety of small fish while adults prey mostly on anchovies, squid, and euphasiids. Parents will drop the food on the burrow floor, often near the entrance for their chick to retrieve. They are able to dive more than 200 ft deep and "fly" underwater on their stubby, strong wings to capture and hold up to 20 small fish crosswise in their bills, to deliver to their chicks. They use their tongues to hold the fish against their fleshy/spiny palate. The adults eat their own food while still under water, usually attacking fish that are in schools. They can stay submerged for up to 30 seconds.

March - April


Migratory patterns of the Tufted Puffin are not well known, but it is clear that at some point they leave their winter feeding grounds in the North Central Pacific and head for their breeding colonies on coastlines and offshore islands of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Gulf of Alaska, Aleutians, Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, Kurils, and Bering and Chukchi Seas.

April - September


Tufted Puffins reach breeding age at approximately three years of age. They are believed to form lifelong partnerships and will strengthen their bond with courtship grunts and growls at their nesting colonies. They return to the same burrow each year, which ranges from 2 to 9.5 ft long with a nest chamber at the end, cleaning it and lengthening it with their bill and claws each year. It may be lined with grass and feathers or nothing at all. It is believed that the year a pair first builds a burrow they do not breed that season as the excavation is too time and energy consuming. Occasionally they will not build a burrow but nest under boulders and piles of rocks or under dense vegetation. But typically nests are excavated in deep, vegetated turf on steep slopes or plateaus, well above shoreline. If mammalian predators are present breeding is usually restricted to inaccessible cliff crevices or inside sea caves. They nest in colonies, some with only a few burrows and some with many. The largest colonies are on substantial offshore islands scattered widely around the coast from California to arctic Alaska. A colony on Talan Island in the Okhotsk Sea has more than one million nests! They are active during the day and can be seen sitting upright on rocks. They are territorial and protect their nesting area from other puffins and other birds. Fights are common upon arrival at breeding colonies. Both members of a pair will attack an intruder, locking bills, scratching with nails, beating wings, stomping feet, and wrestling with the opponent. Such encounters usually last for 2-3 minutes until one runs away as the other chases it. The female usually lays only one dull white egg, (2.8 in long) sometimes with faint blue and brown markings, looking much like a chicken's egg. Both parents take turns incubating for 6 - 7 weeks. During late incubation, some pipping eggs may be pushed out of the burrow, perhaps by young or inexperienced parents. Then for another 6 to 8 weeks the parents protect the chick and bring it small fish 2 to 3 times a day. The chick does not come out of its burrow until it is ready to fledge, after the parents have abandoned it. Then, after a few hungry days, at dusk or after dark, having never seen light, the chick fledges from the burrow and heads out to sea. Most young birds are not yet capable of flight, so they walk or flutter to sea without parental aid. They do not return to the colony for almost two years, spending all their time at sea. They become sexually mature at the age of 3, but most do not mate until they are 4. Non-breeding pairs have been known to kill chicks while parents are away foraging. Adult puffins molt completely following the breeding season, and partially before breeding.

July - September


Migratory patterns are not well known. Juveniles migrate south to far off shore Central North Pacific after fledging, as the seas of their breeding areas freeze. They may not return to coastal breeding areas for several years. It is not known where they go. The adults move south also to the Central North Pacific. Migration is not complete, with some remaining near their breeding colonies while others are pushed south by advancing ice. Adults will return en masse in spring.

September - March


Juveniles molt during their first winter at sea and again the following autumn. Winter habitat is well offshore, in mid-ocean of the Central North Pacific where their diet is mainly squid, euphausiids, and pelagic fish. They are probably the most pelagic of the alcids during their non-breeding season, with many birds wintering 60-120 miles offshore.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary:

IUCN: Least Concern , however it is a California Species of Special Concern (first priority). Several things are contributing to their decline in the lower 48 states: decreasing numbers of fish, oil spills, pollution, gillnets, competition with gulls, and changes in sea temperature that affect the food web. Mammalian predators (Norway rats) on breeding islands in the Aleutians have eliminated some populations. Bycatch in fishing nets killed tens of thousands of Tufted Puffins each year into the 1980s. Elimination of drift-nets on the high seas has reduced mortality, although bycatch in coastal fishing nets still kills large numbers of puffins. In addition, nesting Tufted Puffins are highly vulnerable to red and arctic foxes, river otters, brown bears, and other mammals. Such predators were once absent from most islands in the northeast Pacific, but were introduced in the 1800s and early 1900s. Where present, mammalian predators have devastated or eliminated Tufted Puffins from many islands, but programs to eradicate the introduced species have led to dramatic recovery of puffin populations.
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