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Two types of Puffins in Alaska

  • Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata)
  • Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata).

They belong to the family Alcidae, which includes auks, auklets, murres, murrelets, and guillemots. Alcids spend most of their lives on the open sea and only visit land to breed in the summer.

In Alaska, puffins breed on coastal islands and headlands from Forrester Island in southeastern Alaska to Cape Lisburne on the Chukchi Sea Coast. Horned Puffins are more prevalent farther north than Tufted Puffins.

General Description

The most striking puffin feature is the large colorful bill. Early sailors dubbed them the “sea parrot” from their stout bodies, short wings, and their orange or red webbed feet which are placed far back on their body. Both males and females have the same markings.

Horned puffins are the species most often depicted on souvenirs. In summer they have a black back and neck with white on the sides of the head and on their breast. The white breast is so distinctive that in one Eskimo language puffins are called katukh-puk, meaning “big white breast.” The Horned Puffin has a small, fleshy, dark “horn” above each eye in the summer. The beak is bright yellow with a red tip. Adults are about 14 inches (36 cm) long and weigh about 1 1/4 pounds (600 gm).

Tufted Puffins are named for tufts of feathers that curl back from each side of the head. They have dark, black bodies and white faces. They have orange feet,and their bills are red and yellow

Life history

Puffins, like many other sea birds, nest underground. They generally arrive at breeding colonies in May but arrive later in northern areas due to the lateness of spring. At rockier sites where soil is scarce or nonexistent, puffins nest in rocky slopes or cliff faces. In May, puffins arrive at the nesting grounds. Both species lay only a single, whitish-colored egg.

Most birds spend the winter far offshore in the north Pacific Ocean and do not venture near land. Young puffins remain on the open sea during the summer of their first year. When they are 2 years old they visit the colony during the summer. At 3, puffins are mature enough to breed, but it is only at 4 that they are certain to breed.

Food habits

Puffins are built for swimming underwater rather than for flying. They swim underwater using their wings to propel them and their webbed feet only for maneuvering. On land, puffins are agile and can stand and walk nimbly on their toes. It is in the air that the dignified, agile puffin becomes a bit awkward.

Text by Tom Paul, William A. Lehnhausen, and Susan E.Quinlan, adapted from ADF&G Wildlife Notebook Series:

State of Alaska Fish and Game notebook series