Bird Notes : Puffin
The Atlantic Puffin
Atlantic Puffin, Clown of the Sea, collective noun suitably a “Circus”, is among the most recognisable and much loved birds in the UK. But, typical clowns, there’s a tinge of melancholy to their tale.
Let’s start with what a Puffin actually is. It’s an Auk, a family of upright black and white sea birds whose most notable characteristics are being a bit clumsy on land but having the ability to “fly” underwater - Puffins can descend to 60m in pursuit of their favourite meal of Sand Eels, buried in the sea floor - and who spend more time at sea than anywhere else. In that respect they’re like Penguins, although totally unrelated, and Auks have the advantage of being able to fly. Puffins are possibly the squattest of Auks, tiny bi-coloured dumplings, carrot coloured legs, splashes of red and yellow around the bill.
They make land once a year raising a single chick inside a burrow. Lacking the coloured bill of their parents the youngsters are known as Pufflings, an undeniably endearing name for an undeniably endearing bird. Which makes the following fact all the harder to swallow: In Iceland and the Faroes these comical, waddling, industrious and largely monogamous birds, their young and eggs are a delicacy.
The clue is in the name, although not their own. Puffinus is the latin name for the Shearwater, a completely separate bird, also nesting in burrows and laying a single egg. Puffin, an Anglo-Norman word meaning “Fatling”, was applied to the salted carcasses of cliff dwelling birds traded around Scotland, Ireland and all points north. Somewhere along the way that name settled on our Puffin, sadly marking it out as “food”.
FAMILY Alcidae (Auks)
HABITAT Coastal cliffs and offshore waters, only coming ashore during breeding
SIZE Length, 28-30 cm
DIET Small fish & squid
NEST Cliff top burrow
EGGS 1. White
RANGE Mainly Scotland - although occasionally blown off course inland. Largest populations are further north in Iceland and the Faroes
COLLECTIVE NOUN Circus
OLD NAMES Parrot-Billed Willy; Bulker; Sea Parrot; Cockandy