RSPB Spotlight: Puffins
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Enduringly popular, Puffins are perhaps our most iconic species of bird, and are the most immediately identifiable of seabirds with their decorative bills and clown-like gait. Yet when they take to the air they wheel and turn with great agility and underwater these stocky little birds use short specially adapted wings to propel themselves through the water in pursuit of small fish.
Surprisingly little was known about Puffin ecology until recently thanks to their chosen breeding habitat being underground on remote islands or hard-to-reach coastlines. Now Euan Dunn discloses all we have learnt about them as a result of technological advances, and provides a revealing account of their life cycle, behaviour and breeding, what they eat, how they interact in their busy colonies, and where they migrate to in winter. Euan also exposes the mounting threats Puffins face and offers advice on the best places to see them.
Each Spotlight title is carefully designed to introduce readers to the lives and behaviour of our favourite birds and mammals.
entrance to take the air, acquaint itself with the fresh perspectives that daylight brings and experience the soap opera of colony life. These forays to the surface may also enable the chick to configure the dynamics of the sun and stars for future reference when direction finding is called for on the high seas, and possibly to get a fix on the colony for returning in seasons to come. Unfettered by the confines of its burrow, the new freedom of stepping just outside the burrow also gives the
Thousands of puffins were in the wheel above where I stood, silhouetted against the pale sky. Looking closer, I realized that many of these birds were in pairs, moth flying, almost touching each other in the still air. The sense of peace conveyed by this movement – massed but carefully balanced and tranquil – was overwhelming. Diving for dinner Seabirds have devised various ways of exploiting shoals of small fish. Lightweight seabirds like terns and kittiwakes are surface feeders, at best
that was only dreamed of by early seabird biologists. Chick rearing is exhausting, so Puffins try to husband their energy expenditure by feeding as close to the colony as they can. Skomer Island Puffins mostly feed within 15km (9 miles) of the colony and none do so more than 35km (21¾ miles) away. A posse sets off on a hunting trip. Speed-diving athletes Mike Harris and Sarah Wanless have pioneered the use of electronic technology to reveal the remarkable diving performance of Puffins breeding
at the strong echoes of the demise of the Faroes’ Puffins in Iceland, some 700km (435 miles) to the north, and consider whether deeper forces might be at play here. A day’s haul of Puffins on Iceland’s Westmann Islands. In the heyday of Icelandic hunting, Puffins could be strung as a necklace for taking home. Iceland is by far and away the Puffin capital of the North Atlantic, supporting around 2.5–3 million pairs. In 1994 it was decreed that hunting with fleygs could only take place from 1
internet. A detailed account of all aspects of the Puffin appears in vol. 4 of The Birds of the Western Palearctic, edited by S. Cramp (Oxford University Press, 1985). For the most recent complete census of the British and Irish Puffin population, and interpretation of trends in numbers here and throughout the species’ North Atlantic range, see Seabird Populations of Britain and Ireland: Results of the Seabird 2000 Census (1998-2002) by P. Ian Mitchell, Stephen F. Newton, Norman Ratcliffe and