Tufted Puffin and Horned Puffin
NPS / Rebecca Lasell
Fratercula cirrhata and Fratercula corniculata
The puffins we see from the tour boats are ready for the breeding season. The horned puffin has pure white feathers around the face, large flashy beak plates and the characteristic fleshy black horn above the eye. The tufted puffin also has white facial feathers and colorful beak plates, but the addition of two tufts of yellow feathers atop its head distinguishes this species. Both puffins stand 15 inches tall, the tufted puffin is heavier at 1.7 pounds than the horned puffin at 1.4 pounds. The weight difference seems slim, but for a bird that must beat its wings 400 times a minute to stay aloft, it is very big.
Tufted puffins arrive in the rookery islands about mid-May. Horned puffins usually follow one week later. Both types of puffins begin their breeding season by gathering in large groups on the water. Puffins mate for life, and it is thought that these gatherings may reunite mated pairs.
Range and Sightings
Locally, the cliffs at the base of Beehive Islands I and II in the Chiswell Islands have the heaviest concentration of nesting puffins—both tufted and horned. Abuzz with puffin activity, Beehive Islands I and II are named for the constant flurry of puffins surrounding them.
We also find horned puffins at Caines Head, where a small group (10-20) nests around a little cove at the south end of the headland. On the east side of the bay, horned puffin nests appear at the base of the Resurrection Peninsula, just south of the Fox Island spit. Emerald Cove is one of the busiest horned puffin nesting areas. Tufted puffins show up just past Cheval Island.
Food and Survival Strategies
Both bald eagles and peregrine falcons prey on puffins. To protect themselves from airborne attack, puffins form distinct flight patterns between nesting areas and feeding areas. They fly in large groups and in patterns that roughly resemble a wheel, making it hard for a bird of prey to find and attack an individual.
Reproduction and Young
Tufted puffins dig burrows three to six feet deep in the tops of islands and headlands, while horned puffins use rock crevices for their nesting sites. Both birds may employ grass and feathers for nesting material or may just use the substrate at hand for their egg laying.
Both adults brood the egg. Upon hatching, parents provide the young chick with a steady diet of fish. Although classic photos show puffins with lots of fish in their mouths, the nutritional value of the fish decreases with size. Adults carry fewer fish at a time and make more trips, in order to feed older nestlings approximately 14 fish per day. When the puffin chicks fledge, they leave the nest at night in order to avoid predators. They flutter down to the water's edge alone and head for the open sea. They won't return to land again for two to three years, when they become breeding adults at the rookery.