Bright Arctic «Stars»


Although tufted puffins, also known as crested, are not an endangered species in the Arctic, they are experiencing population declines in some parts of their distribution.

Following the story of a large number of these birds (over 250) dying as a result of starvation, rather than disease, off the US coast in 2017, a new threat has been discovered by US scientists: plastic. Small pieces of plastic have been found in the stomachs of about 25% of birds feeding off the Alaskan coast. In addition, a large number of tufted puffins die each year after getting trapped in fishing nets. They are also among the species that are very sensitive to marine pollution caused by pollutants such as petroleum products, pesticides, etc.

Tufted puffins

The tufted puffin, also known as crested puffin, is an amazing bird in the Auk family (Alcidae). A bird that looks like a tropical visitor to the Arctic lands.

tufted puffins
The tufted puffin

Tufted puffins are a well-known bird on Russia's Pacific coast, where they are known as toporok (топорок), which means "little axe".  According to one version, tufted puffins got this name in Russia due to their large and bright beak, which resembles the shape of an axe.

the tufted puffin
The tufted puffin

The appearance of these migratory birds is unexpected for northern latitudes since black and white colours are complemented by red, yellow, and orange. The birds are also referred to as "clowns of the sea" and "sea parrots" because of their colourful appearance. Birds of the Auk family have particularly expressive eyes, eyebrows, and beaks. Tufted puffins, horned puffins ((F. Corniculata), and Atlantic puffins are members of the Auk family. Most often in nature, these representatives of the same family do not interact with each other. Although, all species are characterised by bright and unusual appearance.

Horned puffins. Photo: Andrew Spenser

Horned puffins are also the owners of gorgeous long "eyelashes", while tufted puffins have an "elegant professor's hairstyle" and blue eye colour, which is rare in birds. It is for its blue eyes that the tufted puffin is considered not only the most beautiful bird in the Arctic but also one of the most beautiful in the world.

the tufted puffin
The tufted puffin

The tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) has a wingspan in the range of 60-65 centimetres and total weight of 850 grammes, making it the largest of all the puffins. The tufted puffin’s beak is much larger than that of its relatives and differs in colour. Its beak is mostly bright red, with yellow and sometimes green markings, accented with yellow at the base. The "face" of the bird is "dressed" in a white “theatre mask”, while the body is completely black. Tufted puffins’ most distinctive feature and namesake are the yellow tufts that appear annually on birds of both sexes as the summer reproductive season approaches. In winter, the bird's cheeks turn darker. However, the bird's legs remain bright orange or red. The variety of colours gives the impression of a festive outfit.  However, only adult representatives have rich, bright colours. The colour of males and females, which is not often found in birds, is the same.

Arctic inhabitants

Tufted puffins, like horned puffins, are widespread in the Bering Sea from eastern Chukotka to the Kamchatka Peninsula. They can also be found on the Commander and Aleutian Islands, Wrangel Island and the islands of the Sea of Okhotsk, as well as in Alaska.

Tufted puffins

More than 100,000 individuals fly to these parts every year during the egg-laying season. The tufted puffin doesn’t build its nests like other birds. With the powerful and beautiful beak, the male digs a burrow in the soft peat, helping himself with webbed feet. The bird's hind legs have bifurcated claws that allow it to climb trees.

Tufted puffins

Another member of the Auk (Alcidae) family - the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) – breeds in colonies along the coastal areas of the Atlantic Ocean: in Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland, on Jan Mayen and the Labrador Peninsula, as well as in Russia on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago and the Ainov Islands. It nests in clifftop colonies, digging a burrow in which a single white egg is laid. Moreover, the Atlantic puffin has a blue-grey triangle at the base of its beak.

Tufted puffins are monogamous

Tufted puffins tend to be monogamous and often form lifetime partnerships after they begin breeding at approximately three to four years of age. The tufted puffin breeding season begins in the spring.

Tufted puffins

Males perform a kind of dance, intensely flapping their wings to attract the attention of females.

The tufted puffin also lays one egg. Both parents incubate this egg for 6.5 to 7.5 weeks. After the egg hatches both parents care for the young for yet another 6-7 weeks until it is ready to leave the nest.

Tufted puffins

Surprisingly, sometimes due to the lack of free space, as tufted puffins nest in large colonies, a pair may set up their burrow directly from a neighbour's burrow, going further underground. Researchers continue to find entire underground labyrinths of their settlements.

Each burrow is carefully lined with dry grass inside by the male.

In the water and in the air

The tufted puffin possesses a funny rolling gait. However, unlike other members of the Auk (Alcidae) family, it does not lean on its tarsometatarsi when walking. The tarsometatarsus is a large bone in the lower leg of a bird with which the toe bones articulate, formed by the fusion of tarsal and metatarsal bones. The tufted puffin runs fast enough by pushing off the surface with its toes.

The tufted puffin

It is an agile and fast bird, capable of reaching speeds up to 70 kilometres per hour. However, take-off is very difficult for the bird. The bird needs room to run or a drop from a height to take off successfully. On Tufted Puffin Rock [Russian: Ostrov Toporkov] in the Bering Sea, researchers have recorded permanent take-off sites along the edge of the plateau, which the birds reach on foot. For many years of life in these places, birds have already trampled such paths up to 2 metres wide. If tufted puffins need to take off from the water, they have to work hard to take off, running along the surface of the water for all they’re worth. Auk family (Alcidae) members’ flight is the most energy-consuming of all birds, while the beak accounts for 10–18% of total heat exchange. And it is the beak that has a leading role in the process. The bird's beak contains many blood vessels and can dissipate heat.

The tufted puffin

As a member of the Auk family, tufted puffins are highly adapted for flight underwater, using their wings to “fly” through the water after diving to look for food. They can dive down to 68 metres and can hold their breath for about 20–30 seconds.

The underwater "flight" of a bird is a mesmerising sight. The point is, there is no difference between flying underwater and in the air. Underwater, the tufted puffin also flaps its wings and changes direction without losing speed. The tufted puffin’s wings are designed more for swimming underwater than for flying in the air. To reach its maximum speed, the bird flaps its wings 300-400 times per minute.

The tufted puffin

Underwater, the tufted puffin hunts small schooling fish and gives its prey to the offspring. The parents bring food to the chick up to 9 times a day. "Fishing spots" are most often tens of kilometres away from the "nest", and the parents travel long distances daily in search of food for the chick.

The bird's favourite meals are capelin, Ammodytes, pollock and their fry, as well as marine invertebrates. The large beak allows the bird to carry up to 20 fish in it at a time. Although, there have been reports of a single tufted puffin holding 29 fish in its beak at the same time!

Moreover, the tufted puffin, already holding its prey in its beak, can get more fish on the way. If the fish is too long, the tufted puffin folds it in half in its beak as it is more convenient to hold it. It's all about the design of the famous beak. The beak, compressed at the sides, acts like fine tweezers, allowing the bird to grasp fish underwater. The vertical expansion of the maxilla increases its fracture strength. Therefore, the captured fish is held between the jaws without interfering with the capture of the next fish. The prey is pressed at the corners of the mouth by the resistance of the water. In addition, the base of the tongue is covered with backward-pointing spines that help hold the food in place. Besides, the tufted puffin has sharp teeth.

A seagull attacks a tufted puffin

Hunting tufted puffins are accompanied by seagulls. The gulls wait for the bird to emerge with its prey from underwater and chase it to take the fish away… and the parents of the chicks have to return to the sea again in search of food. As scientists believe, another member of the Auk (Alcidae) family - the Atlantic puffin - leads a predominantly nocturnal lifestyle during the breeding season, when it is fishing to feed its young chicks, to avoid being chased by seagulls.

The tufted puffin

The tufted puffins themselves rarely attack other birds. Bird fights are more likely to occur among themselves, within a species. Scientists have repeatedly witnessed fierce beak fights between males. The birds sometimes fall off a cliff during a fight with their beaks locked together. But even after falling, they continue to hold each other tightly with their beaks and thus "rest", recovering their breath by lying down with their wings spread.

It is believed that the tufted puffin can carry objects that are 10 times heavier than its own body weight. Besides, the bird makes a sound similar to a dog's bark when it senses danger. When the bird is calm, it often " grumbles" by making mumbling muffled sounds.

The tufted puffin

Today, the total population size of the tufted puffin is estimated to be about 4.5 million individuals. In Russia, only indigenous people are allowed to harvest birds and their eggs in strictly limited quantities in the area of the Komandorsky Nature Reserve in order to preserve their culture and traditional heritage.

Rina Rumyantseva

Based on the following materials: , Amazing planet [Udivitelnaya Planeta], Small World [MirTesen], Nogtetochka , , Notes on the ecology and behaviour of the tufted puffin // The Russian Journal of Ornithology 2017, Vol. 26, express-iss. 1502: 4004-4012