The Puffin is the smallest, standing only 20cms tall, and the most colourful of the of the three members of the auk family that breeds here on Scilly, and is probably our most popular sea bird.

It has a black crown, pale grey cheek patches, white under parts and a broad boldly marked red and black bill and orange legs.  It’s remarkably colourful bill and waddling gait has given rise to nick names such as ‘sea parrot’ or ‘clown of the sea’.  It is thought that the birds colourful bill and feet which fade in winter and brighten in spring, help Puffins assess potential mates and this bond can then last for a life time.

It’s Latin name ‘Fratercula arctica’ means ‘little brother of the north’ and comes from the medieval for ‘friar’ and is a reference to its black and white plumage resembling monastic robes.

In flight the Puffin generally flies higher than the other auks (around 10m above sea level); with a direct fast flight on short stubby wings that beat at 400 beats/min reaching speeds of up to 88kmph (55mph).

Puffins arrive in Scilly in late April and come ashore to nest in colonies on some of our larger uninhabited islands.  Once on land the pair reunite with the colony; it is at this time that some pairs exhibit a special behaviour know as ‘billing’ where the two birds waggle their heads from side to side rubbing their bills together.  This seems to be an important element of the courtship behaviour.

Puffins generally nest underground in a burrow or crevice, often reusing the same nest site year after year; once this has had a spring clean the female lays a single egg in a nest constructed of seaweed, feathers and grass.  After the egg is safely in the nest both parents take turns to incubate; it usually takes about 40 days to hatch.

Once the chick, known as a ‘Puffling’ hatches, the pair then take it in turns to bring back food several times a day; this will be small fish such as sand eels, herring, capelin and hake.  The Puffin catches these fish by diving down to depths as much as 60m; they do this by flapping their wings to ‘fly’ through the water to pursue their prey using its feet to steer.

The Puffin is able to carry several fish in its beak at one time. They do this by pushing the fish to the back of their mouths using a specially adapted grooved tongue, securing the fish in place with ridges at the top of the bill. This adaptation allows them to keep their mouth open to catch more fish without loosing any. On average they will carry around 10 fish at a time, but can carry many more with 62 being the largest number recorded.

At first the parent birds will forage close to the nest site but as the Puffling grows it can be left for longer periods of time allowing them to go on longer fishing trip, sometimes up to 100km out to sea.

After about six weeks the Puffling is ready to leave the burrow; they do this under the cover of darkness to avoid predators such as Great black-backed gulls.  Pufflings haven’t yet learnt to fly, so launch themselves off the rocks into the sea where they immediately start to swim out to open water and can be up to 2/3km away by daybreak.  The young Puffin will then spend the next 2-3 years out at sea, leading a mostly solitary existence, learning about fishing grounds and finding a mate.

At the end of the breeding season the adult Puffins also head back out to sea, where they under go a partial moult, loosing their brightly coloured faces and markings on the bill; in fact the bill actually reduces in size and shape.

This winter plumage is seldom seen by humans as the birds disperse out into the Atlantic, not returning to land until the following breeding season.

In the wild, Puffins can live for up to 20 years and are probably safer when out at sea.  Here, during their breeding season, the main threats can come from below water where Seals and large fish have been known to take Puffins.  From the air the biggest threats are from Great black-backed gulls and Skuas and on land Puffins choose remote islands to avoid predation by ground based mammals.

Conservation status

Europe is home to around 90% of the global population of Atlantic Puffins, and in 2015 the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded it status from ‘least concern’ to ‘vulnerable’ due to rapid population decline.  This is believed to be due to a number of different factors such as increased predation from introduced mammals to some of its breeding grounds, over fishing, pollution and rises in sea temperature.

The rise in sea temperature could be the biggest threat to the birds' future; they are adapted to living in sea temperatures of 0-20°C and catching fish who are also adapted to these colder temperatures.

Here in Scilly we are at the southern edge of the Puffins summer territory and although historical records suggest that breeding pairs once numbered in their 1000s recent figures show numbers to be greatly reduced but stable with numbers fluctuating around 170 pairs.

If you want to spot this charismatic little bird one of the special wildlife watching boat trips will give you your best chance.