Well, we had finally made it to Newfoundland, and though the car that drove across the province saw three moose, those who flew from Halifax saw nothing, and so my trip was woefully devoid of wildlife. Fortunately, however, Newfoundland is a mega tourist spot, and has many wildlife viewing tours, most of which feature the provincial bird, the Atlantic puffin. So I took one of these tours, spending a nice chunk of change so that you, my dear readers, would not be subjected to reading about deer. In no way did my personal love of animals and wildlife affect my decision to go on that boat tour. It was all for you. And now you get to read about a really neat little bird, the Atlantic puffin.

A puffin sporting its bright orange beak and a mouthful of fish. The beaks are bright in the breeding season but grey in the rest of the year. Image By Joanne Goldby – https://www.flickr.com/photos/jovamp/5874299923/, CC BY-SA 2.0

Puffins are members of the auk family, which consists of a variety of seabirds. The Atlantic puffin is the only species of puffin that resides in the Atlantic, the other two species of puffins living in the pacific. Though they look kind of like penguins, the two animals are not closely related. Puffins do fill the same ecological niche as penguins, but in the northern hemisphere. The likeness between them is an example of convergent evolution; which describes two unrelated species developing similar traits because of similar environments.

Unlike penguins, puffins can fly, but they don’t do it very well. A Newfoundlander described puffins to me as ‘proof that you can make bricks fly if you attach a big enough motor to them.’ And of course he said it with an awesome Newfie accent which just made everything better. But it’s essentially true; puffins have rather stout bodies, to keep them warm, and these heavy fellas need quite a bit of wing power to get aloft. But puffins also use their wings to propel their way through water, and so their wings also have to be adapted to the water. So puffins do not fly well; they have to beat their wings extremely fast just to stay in the air. It makes them look like insects from far away – the colony we saw looked like a buzzing hive of bees or flies.

A puffin taking off from the water - a picture I took myself!
A puffin taking off from the water – a picture I took myself!

Flying might be hard for puffins, but taking off is even harder. When taking off from water, puffins always face into the waves. This is so they can run and skip along the water until they have enough loft to carry them up. Puffins are so bad at getting into the air that on land they can’t take off from flat ground. Instead they launch themselves off cliffs and hope their wings can keep them in the air.

This is why breeding colonies are built on cliffs – no puffin wants to wake up every day and waddle over some flat ground until he finds an appropriate launch site. The colonies are actually quite spectacular. They are built on islands on sloped ground, and each puffin pair digs their own little burrow. The result is a hill that is just peppered with little holes. Here’s a picture I took of the colony in Newfoundland to show you what it looks like:

Puffin burrows and an adult guarding its nest
Puffin burrows and an adult guarding its nest

Puffins spend most of the year on the open ocean, where they are much more comfortable than on land or in air. They only come to land to breed, and do so in the spring. Puffins mate for life, laying one chick a year for their entire adult lives. Every year the puffins return to the same breeding colony, each pair returning to the same burrow they used the year before. The single chick is raised on whole fish, which the puffin catches in droves, often bringing 20-30 fish back to the nest at once. Unfortunately for the puffins, a mouthful of fish is a pretty tempting target, and gulls tend to take advantage of the clumsy flying puffins. The gulls fly behind the puffins and grab their tails, making the poor birds drop their hard earned catch.

Puffins have to be one of the funniest looking birds on the planet. Their clumsy manner of flying and silly faces just make me laugh ever time I look at them. One of my main goals when I was in Newfoundland was to see a puffin, and I saw hundreds. On the same tour I also saw a minke whale, so come back on Wednesday for that post!

Cover image By Ulrich Latzenhofer – originally posted to Flickr as Papageitaucher, CC BY-SA 2.0