The Clowns of the Sea
Descendants of the Great Auk, puffins are a part of the Alcidae family along with auks and murres; they belong to a broader bird family referred to as the Charadriidae which includes about 66 species in total. These kinds of birds are fairly small and mostly have bold, though often concealed, plumage patterns. There are four different subspecies of puffins: the atlantic puffin (most well known), the horned puffin (my personal favourite), the tufted puffin, and, despite its differing name and appearance, the rhinoceros auklet.
Despite having characteristically short beaks, the average puffin can hold up to 30 fish after a hunt due to having a spine along the roof of their mouth (known as denticles) that their tongue can push fish against as they continue to catch more. However, there was once a puffin spotted carrying 62 fish in its beak!
Their beaks are what make puffins so recognisable with all its vibrant colours, but did you know that the boldness is seasonal? The bright reds tend to fade during winter months and reach their most stunning in the build up to mating season in order to attract a partner puffin who they will probably stay committed to for their whole life!
Different subspecies of puffins may have extra attributes to their appearance that are used for attracting a mate. The horned puffin grows horns above both of its eyes to look a little like clownish makeup; the rhinoceros auklet also grows a horn but this is at the base of its colourful beak. The tufted puffin has two blond streaks going down the back of its head that stand out significantly due to the contrast with their black feathers.
However, their beaks aren't the only fascinating aspect about them. Although puffins have categorically small wingspans, they can still reach highly impressive speeds of 55 miles per hour! That's in the range of the fastest speed a cheetah can run at, between 49mph-81mph! In addition to this, puffins can flap their wings for up to 300-400 times per minute - over 5 times per second!
Their greatest speeds are used only for short periods of time such as when they need to dive into seas to catch fish. Although this marine bird can be underwater for a whole 2 minutes, the average dive only lasts for around 20 seconds in order to preserve enough energy to fly back home to their cliff nests; it would be quite a strain to go at such a fast speed constantly as puffins spend almost two thirds of the year at sea.
These “clowns of the sea” are incredibly impressive animals that go oddly overlooked considering their talents of speed and uniquely differing appearances. They’re some of the coolest birds in the sky (or more likely sea) and they’re incredibly cute. Unfortunately, puffin numbers have been declining for decades and are at risk of extinction which has made them a protected species since 2015. To help puffins you can simply make an effort to consume fish that has been caught sustainably (which you can check by looking at the Good Fish Guide on the Marine Conservation Society’s website).