The Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) is unmistakable with it’s long ‘ear tufts’ and it’s comical bill. There are only two other living members in the Fratercula genus. These are the Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula artica), and one extinct species, Dow’s Puffin (Fratercula dowi). The Tufted Puffin is in the Auk family (Alcidae) and is also known as the Crested Puffin.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
The Tufted Puffin forms colonies from lower California right up to Alaska, with it’s most dense colonies around British Columbia. This range also includes the Aleutian Islands, Kamchatka, the Kunil Islands and throughout the Sea of Okhotsk. In Winter the Tufted Puffin stays mainly at sea, heading as far as South Japan. Tufted Puffins prefer steep cliffs with grassy, soil-based areas (the Tufted Puffins dig burrows to lay their egg). As the nests are at ground level, areas inaccessible to predators are more suited. The main predators to this species are the Snowy Owl, Bald Eagle and Arctic Fox. The nesting area also needs to be high to aid with flight, it takes approximately 40 beats per second for this species to take flight!
In Summer/breeding plumage these birds are a uniform black with a white face. Their thick bill is bright red/orange with yellow and sometimes green. The legs are usually a bright orange-red colour. The head has two distinct golden-yellow 'ear tufts’. Adults average around 35cm in length (15 inches). Average weight is around 750g (1.6lb), although the western populations seem to be larger than the eastern populations. The adults have short wings, an 18-25 inch wingspan is normal. Due to this issue, although strong flyers and swimmers, the Tufted Puffin cannot glide!
In Winter the bird dulls, the white face turns dark and the underbelly becomes browner. The ear tufts moult and the bill and legs both fade to duller colours.
Juveniles resemble the Winter coat adults and have a white belly. The bill is narrower and more yellow-brown in colour. The juvenile often resembles an unmarked Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata).
DIET, BEHAVIOUR AND REPRODUCTION
This species is almost exclusively a piscivore (fish eater), but it will take squid, zooplankton and other invertebrates too. The Tufted Puffin is capable of carrying many fish in it’s bill, the largest amount recorded was 62 individual fish! One egg is laid in the underground burrow, it is incubated for between 40 and 53 days. This usually occurs around late April to June. The mating ritual includes sky-pointing (flying vertically upwards), strutting and billing (rubbing their bills together). The average lifespan is around 15-22 years.
OTHER NOTABLE INFORMATION
The scientific name translates as 'little brother' (Fratercula) and 'tufted' (cirrhata). One lone Tufted Puffin was spotted in the Swale Estuary, Kent in the UK!
The tufted puffin is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern.