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Atlantic Puffin
Fratercula arctica
– Family
Authors: Lowther, Peter E., A. W. Diamond, Stephen W. Kress, Gregory J. Robertson, and Keith Russell

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Atlantic Puffin, breeding adult.
Figure 1. Distribution of the Atlantic Puffin in North America and Greenland.

This species account is dedicated in honor of Kathryn M. Kiplinger, a member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Administrative Board.

The Atlantic Puffin is a medium-sized, stout, robust auk. Its sleek, black-and-white plumage contrasts sharply with its large, gaudily colored bill plates and bright-orange legs and feet. Like other puffins, this one gathers to breed on offshore islands and lays a single egg in a burrow dug in the ground or within a rocky crevice. Somewhat clumsy on land and in flight, it is an agile diver while hunting its prey—generally small schooling fish. Able to live into its 30s, the Atlantic Puffin does not breed until it is 3 to 6 years old. Attendance at colonies is highly variable; some days only a few puffins may be present, while at other times masses of birds appear everywhere. Outside of the breeding season, this species heads for the high seas and remains offshore; rarely, some even cross the Atlantic. These winter, at-sea aspects of its life history remain poorly known.

Historically, the Atlantic Puffin in North America was heavily persecuted for eggs, feathers, and food. Many populations suffered drastically, and major conservation initiatives were undertaken to recover populations. Nowadays, the public appears to be endlessly fascinated by puffins. Multimillion-dollar tourism industries have developed near puffin colonies in parts of eastern North America. The rugged scenery of their breeding colonies and their colorful bills and behavioral antics prove an irresistible draw for tourists. In recognition, the Atlantic Puffin is the provincial bird of Newfoundland and Labrador. This public appreciation also made it possible to carry out a large-scale program to reintroduce puffins to two historic sites in the Gulf of Maine. Worldwide, most Atlantic Puffins breed in Iceland. In North America, their current stronghold is Witless Bay, Newfoundland, where over half the continent’s population breeds.

The comprehensive work by Michael Harris in Scotland (summarized in Harris 1984a) is the source of much of our knowledge of this species. Nettleship’s (1972) study on Great Island, Witless Bay, remains a definitive source for many aspects of breeding ecology. North American studies have examined behavior and breeding ecology (Pierotti 1983; Rice 1985, 1987; Creelman and Storey 1991; Rodway et al. 1996a, 1996b, 1998; Rodway and Montevecchi 1996; Calvert and Robertson 2002a), food and foraging (Brown and Nettleship 1984), and pelagic distribution (Brown 1985). Reintroduction of the species to the Gulf of Maine is described by Kress and Nettleship (1988); current and historical population status is reviewed by Nettleship and Evans (1985).