British Wildlife of the Week
Charismatic and somewhat clownish, with a bizarre multicoloured beak, upright stance, and a waddling gait, the puffin is everyone’s favourite seabird. These irresistibly charming, pint-sized auks are easily identifiable, even to non-birdwatchers. But despite their popularity – and even though there are more than a million puffins breeding around the British Isles – few people have actually seen one.
This is because puffins spend most of their time on the open ocean, far out of sight of land, either paddling around on the surface or diving beneath it to catch fish. However, they must come ashore occasionally to breed, returning to the same nesting site each year. Unlike their guillemot and razorbill relatives, which lay eggs on narrow cliff ledges, puffins nest in burrows – typically old rabbit ones – on offshore islands and remote headlands.
Puffins are unusual in that they not only grow brighter feathers for the breeding season, they also develop coloured horny plates that cover parts of the beak. This changes the colour and shape of the bill so much that, until 1878, naturalists thought there were two species of European puffin. The colourful beaks act as digging implements, allowing puffins to excavate burrows on grassy clifftops, and they also play a vital role in pair-bonding behaviour – puffin mates rub beaks throughout the breeding season. Once the season is over, the adults shed their gaudy bill plates to reveal a much drabber sea-going version beneath.
There are three species of puffin in the world. The one that lives and breeds around the British Isles is called the Atlantic puffin. All three belong to the genus Fratercula, which means ‘little friar’. This is a reference to these birds’ black and white plumage, which was said to resemble the clothing worn by monks.
Confusingly, however, the word ‘puffin’ was originally used to refer to another seabird, the Manx shearwater – and, in particular, its plump, fatty chicks. For centuries, sailors stopped off at these birds’ breeding colonies to harvest their nestlings, which would be salted to sustain the mariners on their long sea voyages, when fresh meat was scarce. Later, this was turned into a profitable trade. Because shearwaters can swim well underwater, they were conveniently classified as ‘feathered fishes’, which allowed them to be eaten during periods of Lent, when meat was forbidden – a custom that was approved by the highest level of the Catholic Church.
From as early as 1678, though, ‘puffin’ gradually came to be used for a second seabird as well, one that was sometimes previously known as ‘sea parrot’ due to its large, colourful bill. It seemed that confusion had started to arise between the two species. Although puffins and shearwaters look quite different, they both nest in burrows on clifftops and their grey, plump, fluffy chicks superficially resemble one another. So, over time, the common name transferred from one species to another, from the shearwater to the ‘sea parrot’ – although the Manx shearwater still retains the scientific name of Puffinus puffinus to this day.
Puffins are ungainly on land and, thanks to their short, stubby wings, which they must flap frantically, not so great in the air either. They have a whirry-winged, comical, almost clockwork-like flight, with little aerial agility. Only when they enter the water do they reveal their true grace and efficiency; they are excellent swimmers and superb divers, zooming around underwater to seize tiny fish such as sand eels.
Puffins are often photographed standing around with large numbers of small, thin fish held crosswise in their bill, drooping like a silvery moustache (see image above). They are able to catch so many fish without losing what they have already caught thanks to a modified, grooved tongue and a series of backwards-tilted serrations on the upper palate. Once a puffin has grabbed a fish, it uses its tongue to push its catch against the spines above, enabling it to seize more. Puffins normally carry up to 20 fish using this method, although one particularly enterprising British individual managed to cram 61 sand eels and a rockling into its bill.
However, contrary to a popular belief, puffins do not arrange the fish in their bills with the heads and tails alternating on each side, no matter how much I would like that to be true.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at a truly British bird, one that lives here but nowhere else in the world – the red grouse.