Not clowning around
How the iconic tufted puffin sends us vital ocean signals
Have you ever peeped a tufted puffin? Chances are, you (lucky ducky) saw them during the summer breeding season: bright orange beaks, long golden feather head plumes, and a sharp white and black eye mask with red eyeliner that has earned them the name “clown of the sea.” They might have been perched on steep grassy banks near their burrows, or bobbing nearby in groups on the ocean.
Tufted puffins are seabirds in the auk family that, in North America, range from the coast of California to the northern icy waters off the coast of Alaska. There are an estimated 3 million tufted puffins worldwide, about 2.5 million of which are in North America — and about 96% of those breed in Alaska.
They actually spend most of their year out on the open ocean — sometimes more than a hundred miles offshore — and only come to land for a few months to breed, nest, and rear chicks (called pufflings!).
During their temporary time on land, puffins stay well connected with the ocean through their daily seafood diet of mostly small, plump silver morsels, known as forage fish: capelin, sand lance, mackerel, and Pacific herring.
Tufted puffins can also give humans a window into the health of the marine ecosystem, thanks to their smorgasbord approach to the nearshore areas around their burrows. They are “samplers” of the sea, generalist hunters that will grab a selection of the prey available in an area. Scientists can then collect diet samples from the puffins as they return to burrows to feed their chicks in July and August.
DYK? Neato things about tufted puffin dining behavior
- Adults eat their prey underwater! When you see an adult with fish in its bill on the surface or in flight, they are delivering a take-out meal to chicks in a burrow.
- They can dive and “fly” underwater up to a depth of 200 feet, flapping their wings for propulsion and using their orange webbed feet to steer.
- They have denticles (a type of serrated tooth) on their beaks, a locking tongue, and a large jaw that helps them grab and hold lots of small fish crosswise — as many as 20 at a time!
- In addition to small fish, they also dine on mollusks, cephalopods, and crustaceans - including squids, octopus, crabs, and jellyfish.
Sentinels of the sea
Biologists have monitored tufted puffins at their breeding sites in Alaska for several decades, recording population trends over time through land- and sea-based surveys.
At five of the eight long-term seabird monitoring camps on remote islands of Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, bio technicians spend their summer conducting surveys that include tufted puffin counts, chick monitoring, and diet sampling. Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge staff maintain a long-term dataset stretching back to 1975, and survey tufted puffin populations at colony sites in the Kodiak Archipelago from the research vessel, the Ursa Major II.
Data from diet samples can tell us a lot about what is going on in the ocean near these islands — so much, in fact, that we partner with the National Marine Fishery Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NMFS/NOAA) to contribute to an annual snapshot report of ocean health.
Each fall, NOAA releases Ecosystem Status Reports for three Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) areas of Alaska: the Gulf of Alaska, Aleutian Islands, and the Bering Sea. These reports are then included in the annual Fisheries Management Plans that provide harvest parameters for commercial fisheries.
Because tufted puffins take a little bit of this and a little bit of that from the seafood buffet in their breeding areas, their diet information can be particularly helpful to inform sustainable fisheries management: fish prey on some of the same species as tufted puffins.
Seabirds like tufted puffins can also give us an indication of overall ocean health — including the impact of unusual incidents like the recent marine heat waves.
As tufted puffin numbers at colonies along the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts have gone through steep declines, many colonies in northern and western coastal Alaska have remained stable. However, we have noticed fewer puffins at some colonies in the Gulf of Alaska, the large marine ecosystem area in the North Pacific Ocean that hosts about 36% of the breeding puffins in all of North America.
We don’t have all the answers yet about what may be impacting puffins, but biologists have become even more interested in what we can learn from their time on saltwater.
Stay tuned for some new pieces of a seasonal puzzle: the winter sea
Tufted puffins winter offshore in the North Pacific Ocean. Their historical wintering range includes an almost 4.5 million square mile area of water. Looking for a puffin in the winter can be like trying to find a breadcrumb on a beach… But what if you could map their marine movements?
Read more to find out how two Alaska refuges are taking on this challenge:
Puzzling about puffins!
In 2014, the tufted puffin was petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), due to dramatic declines observed in the southern portion of its range (i.e., at colonies in the contiguous U.S. and Japan). In 2020, the species was found not warranted for listing (85 FR 78029), but concern remains regarding status of the species in some parts of its range.
The National Wildlife Refuge Program, Migratory Bird Program, and the Ecological Services Program in Alaska are working with partners to monitor and learn more about tufted puffins.
Thanks to Megan Boldenow, Nora Rojek, and Erin Strand for assistance with this article. Compiled by Lisa Hupp, Communications Specialist for the Refuge Program in Alaska.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.