Not clowning around

How the iconic tufted puffin sends us vital ocean signals

U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska
6 min readJun 30, 2022
Group of tufted puffins on a grassy cliff near open burrows
Tufted puffins on Aiktak Island colony, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy: Ian Shive.

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.

Group of tufted puffins on the water
Incoming! A tufted puffin flies in to land in a group of tufted puffins floating in the nearshore area around Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

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.

Profile of a tufted puffin
Tufted puffin with some handsome summer breeding plumage outside of a burrow near Kodiak Island. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

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!).

Tufted puffins breed at several national wildlife refuges in Alaska, including Alaska Maritime, Kodiak, Izembek, Alaska Peninsula/Becharof, and Togiak refuges.

Tufted puffin near an open burrow
Tufted puffin at a burrow entrance. Burrows can be up to 7 feet long, and puffins use the claws and webbed feet to dig and then line their nest with grass, seaweed, or feathers. The female lays a single egg, which both parents tend during incubation and after the chick hatches. Photo: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

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 puffin with several fish in its beak crosswise
Tufted puffin with a beak full of sand lance for a chick near Kodiak Island, Alaska. Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

Seafood samplers

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.

tufted puffin in flight with a fish in its beak
Seafood delivery: this tufted puffin is on its way back from the ocean to a burrow on land with a few small fish for its chick. Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

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.
Tufted puffin standing near a burrow with fish in its beak
Using cameras to photograph fish deliveries to burrows is one way of diet sampling. Another involves laying a screen across the burrow entrance to intercept the delivery. Photo from: Arthur Kettle/USFWS

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.

Bottles of diet samples lined up on a table with a field notebook
Seabird diet samples collected on Buldir Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: McKenzie Mudge/USFWS;

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.

Tufted puffin on the water
Sentinel of the sea: a tufted puffin swims at the surface of the North Pacific Ocean near Kodiak Island. Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

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.

Watch: a video from NOAA about the many agencies, organizations, and communities that collaborate for these reports.

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.

Tufted puffin on a cliff with orange feet and claws showing.
A tufted puffin at a colony in the Gulf of Alaska near Kodiak Island. Note the claws on their toes, useful for digging burrows that may go seven feet deep! Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

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!

Extreme closeup of a tufted puffin facing the camera.
Well hello there. This tufted puffin might be able to give us new clues about what its ocean life is like. Stay tuned for more! Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

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.

Read more about our work that includes puffin monitoring and research:
Tracking an Alaskan Icon
Seabird Science on an Alaska-sized Scale
Science by Sea for Alaska’s Wildlife Refuges

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.

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