Puffins are cute and comical seabirds which breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands along the Maine coast, nesting in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil. They are stocky black and white birds with distinctive, colorful orange beaks during their breeding season; they can grow to nearly a meter in height depending on the species. Their short wings are adapted for swimming with a flying technique under water. In the air, they beat their wings rapidly in swift flight.
It is thought the name puffin comes from the word ‘puff,’ which refers to swollen. The puffin chick is most like its name because of its round, puffed look resulting from its dense cover of down feathers, which helps the chick retain body heat while the parent is off fishing. They look like little balls of puff with a beak and feet sticking out.
Puffin chicks are usually fed by their parents, who mostly eat small fish such as herring, hake and capelin. The parents carry the fish in the bills, around 10 fish at a time, although the record is 62! They will either pass them to the chicks or drop them on the burrow floor, several times each day. The puffin diets can vary from colony to colony, depending on the fish available around the breeding islands. In winter they may also eat crustaceans.
Puffins dive to catch fish, and most dives usually last 20 to 30 seconds. While underwater, the puffin swims by using its wings to push itself along, almost as if it were flying, and uses its feet as a rudder. In the air, a puffin can fly as fast as 48-55 mph. Their wings beat so rapidly that they blur, giving the bird the appearance of the black and white football.
Puffins do not normally breed until they are 5 years old and use their pre-breeding years to learn about feeding places, choosing a mate and nest sites. They dig their 2-3 foot long burrows in earth or between rocks on steep sea cliffs, as protection from predators, using their bills to cut into soil and their feet to shovel away loose material. At the back of the burrow, the parents build a soft nest of feathers and grass where they incubate the single egg the female lays each year. They mate for life, which can be 20 years or more, and use the same burrow each year. Both parents share the duties of incubating the egg and rearing the chick.
There are five Atlantic Puffin colonies along the Maine coast. Three are frequently visited, two are sporadically visited. Only one allows visitors to land. Eastern Egg Rock is a 7-acre island six miles from New Harbor, owned by the state and managed by The Puffin Project. The island is less exposed to challenging seas and this can be a good choice for visitors prone to seasickness!
Remember to take a guess at the two places of A – Z my husband and I will be visiting this summer, after we get to Z. A copy of my second book is the prize for the correct guess!