Cold temperate to polar latitudes of the north Atlantic and Arctic oceans
Nest in coastal grasses; feed in coastal to open ocean (pelagic) waters
Order Charadriiformes (gulls, auks, and relatives), Family Alcidae (auks)
The Atlantic puffin is a colorful seabird and is the only puffin that lives in the Atlantic Ocean. Puffins are excellent swimmers and, like penguins, use their wings to swim underwater while chasing prey. They superficially resemble small penguins in appearance, but unlike penguins, they are good fliers and occasionally take long foraging trips, far from their nesting sites.
Like most seabirds, Atlantic puffins get all of their food from marine sources but nest on land. Their preferred prey includes forage fishes, including herrings, capelins, sprat, and others. While nesting, they generally feed close to their nesting sites but may go on longer feeding trips during other seasons. Atlantic puffins are pursuit divers – they “duck dive” from the sea surface and chase prey, using their wings like flippers. Using this method, they can dive as deep as 200 feet (60 m). When on long foraging trips, Atlantic puffins rest (and even sleep) on the sea surface rather than on the wing. Unlike most seabirds, their wings are relatively small, and they are unable to glide.
Atlantic puffins are typically solitary while foraging, so most of scientists’ knowledge of this species is a result of studying nesting birds. During the nesting season (spring), these birds return to their natal colonies (the places where they hatched) and form pair bonds that allow them to raise chicks to maturity in the harsh north Atlantic Ocean. During the nesting season, Atlantic puffins remain monogamous, and some pair bonds are consistent from year to year. Colony size is limited by availability of nest sites, and late returning birds may not be able to find a suitable area and therefore not be able to reproduce.
Atlantic puffins were historically hunted heavily and populations have declined. In most places, this species now has some or complete legal protection, but populations continue to trend downward, perhaps as a result of changes to north Atlantic food webs. Fortunately, these negative trends are not threatening the species, and scientists recently determined that it is one of least concern. However, it is important to continue to monitor populations to ensure that declines do not become more severe.