Posted 2nd Jun 2017
Following the launch of the RSPB 'Puffarazzi' campaign to help to save the puffin, we take a look at the distinctive bird
The unmistakable puffin has a black back and white underparts, with a distinctive black head and large pale cheeks, coupled with a tall, flattened and brightly-coloured bill, given it something of a comical appearance. This is further enhanced by its red and black eye-markings and bright orange legs. Half of the UK population is found at only a few sites, making it a Red List species.
If you would like to see one, you're best off visiting a breeding colony - for instance, the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs or South Stack reserves. Other options include the Farne Islands and Coquet Islands, the Isle of May, or the Shetland and Orkney Islands.
When you will see them
Adults will arrive at their breeding colony in March and April, leaving again in mid-August. Some will opt to remain in the North Sea during the winter months, while others will move further south to the Bay of Biscay.
Adult birds will return to their colonies in late March or early April, spending a long time at sea in large flocks called rafts. Where possible, the birds will excavate a nesting burrow into the soil, sometimes making use of burrows left by the Manx shearwater or rabbits. In instances where burrowing is not possible, the birds will either nest under boulders or in cracks and cavities in cliffs.
The birds will defend the nesting site and its immediate surroundings, and use the same area for the years to come. Puffins will only lay a single egg, either in late April or early May, which will then be incubated by both parents for between 36 and 45 days, and they will share feeding duties until the chick is ready to fledge. The fledging period is very variable, ranging from 34 to 60 days, depending on the area and year. Adult birds will then desert their young shortly before they are ready to leave the nest - the timing of the breeding in puffins is highly synchronised, so the all of the adults will depart within a few days.
Young birds will then leave their nest burrow and make their way out to sea, mainly under the cover of darkness, to avoid predators. Puffins will usually reach breeding age at 5-6 years old, and generally live for 20 years.
Threats to the bird
One of the most common seabirds in northern Europe, the British Isles holds around 10 per cent of the world's puffin population. However, it's included on the Amber list of UK Birds of Conservation Concern, and is very vulnerable to adverse changes in the environment due to its breeding population, which is concentrated on a small number of sites. There have also been large population declines over much of its European range, with the main threat to puffins being the changes in distribution and the number of available small fish. The introduction of ground predators, such as the rat, mink or cat, and pollution also pose serious hazards.
For instance, the Torrey Canyon oil leak in 1967 killed 85 per cent of the French puffins, which can take decades for the species to recover from due to their low reproductive rate.
With the puffin so widespread, the only realistic conservation measures are sustainable exploitation of the seas, limiting the amount of marine pollution, and preventing ground predators from reaching nesting colonies.
Facts courtesy of RSPB / image courtesy of Andy Hayes