Guide to puffins: facts, identification and where to see them

Charming, clownish puffins are one of Britain's most loved birds. We take a closer look at these iconic seabirds, delving into their characteristics, diet, migration, breeding habits and the best places to see them in the UK.

Puffins on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire
Published: June 2nd, 2020 at 10:58 am
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Guide to puffins, including where to see them, conservation status and surprising facts.

What are puffins?

Puffins are a species of seabird that belong to the auk family. They weigh about 500 grams and are usually about 18cm tall. Their distinctive black backs, pale chests, round white cheeks, orange legs, and red, yellow and black bills have earned them the nickname 'sea parrots'.

Puffins among coastal thrift
Puffins among flowering coastal thrift Alamy

How many species of puffin are there?

There are four species of puffin in the world: the Atlantic Puffin, horned Puffin, tufted puffin and rhinoceros auklet. It is the Atlantic puffin – Fratercula arcticathat is found in the UK.

How many puffins live in the UK?

There are 580,000 pairs of Atlantic puffin living in the UK. They arrive here in spring, settling on islands and cliff tops around our coast to breed.

Seabirds on rock

When is the puffin breeding season?

In spring and summer thousands of puffins gather in colonies on the coast and North Atlantic Ocean to breed.

Each year, puffins lay an average of one egg, usually staying with the same mate throughout their lifetimes.

Puffins build burrows in rocky cliffs, or on the solid ground between rocks. Burrows are located three feet under the ground.

How long to puffins live?

Puffins can live to up 25 years in the wild.

What do puffins eat?

Puffins are carnivores, living off small fish such as herring, hake and sand eels.

Puffins are one of just a few birds that have the ability to hold several fish in their bills at one time. Their rough tongues allow them to have a firm grasp on 10-12 fish during one foraging trip.

Puffin with a catch of sand eels
Puffin with a catch of sand eels Alamy

Can puffins swim underwater?

Puffins can dive for up to a minute, although they generally stay underwater for about thirty seconds. When in the water, they can dive as deep as sixty metres.

What are baby puffins called?

Baby puffins are called pufflings.

How fast can puffins fly?

Puffins are strong flyers. They can beat their wings up to 400 times a minute and move through the air at 88km an hour.

Puffin in flight
Atlantic puffins can fly at more than 50mph

Do puffin bills change colour?

In winter, puffins shed their outer bills, leaving smaller, duller ones behind. Their brighter red and grey plates are grown in again ahead of breeding season to attract potential mates.

Puffin predators

Their main predator is the great black-backed gull, which can capture a puffin mid-flight.

Are puffins endangered and what are their threats?

Although Puffins are not an endangered species their numbers are on the decline. The main threats include overfishing, which can result in a shortage of food for the puffins, and pollution, in particular oil spills. Not only does the oil make the birds sick, but it also damages their waterproof feathers, which are essential for their survival.

Another factor contributing towards the drop in bird numbers is climate change; rising sea temperatures affect their food sources, namely the sand eel, which lives in a cool water environments.

Where are the best places to see puffins?

1. Farne Islands, Northumberland

Puffin on clifftop
Atlantic puffin resting on clifftop, on Staple Island, Farne Islands off Northumberland coast of England.

The wild and windswept Farne Islands lie two miles off the Northumberland Coast. Each year puffins return to their shores to breed between April and late July. On Inner Farne, 14th-century St Cuthbert’s Chapel is open up to the public.

2. Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire

Bempton Cliffs Yorkshire UK
Bempton Cliffs run along the Yorkshire coast Alamy

Bempton cliff is an ideal place to go bird watching if you aren't able to take on long walks, as inside the seabird centre a TV screen shows live images from the cliffs. Bempton also has the largest kittiwake colony in mainland Britain.

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3. Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire

Skomer Island along the Welsh coast
landscape of Skomer Island, a small island along the coast of Wales; Skomer, United Kingdom

Rugged Skomer Island is surrounded by sheltered coves and shaded inlets where puffins dart in and out of their nests.

4. Sumburgh Head, Shetland Islands

Puffin on Sumburgh Head, Shetland Islands
A puffin (Fratercula arctica) by the entrance to its burrow on the top of Sumburgh Head, Shetland Islands Alexander Mustard

The cliffs surrounding Sumburgh are teeming with birds after the summer breeding season. Looking out to sea you may spot dolphins, harbour porpoise or even killer whales breaking the water’s surface, and on the shore common and grey seals can often be seen basking on the rocks.

5. Isles of Scilly

Aerial of the Isles of Scilly, England, United Kingdom
Aerial of the Isles of Scilly, England, United Kingdom

Every year between 100-200 pairs of Puffins come and nest on the sub-tropical Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast. The islands are a nature lover's paradise, with 30 miles of walking trails on St Mary, and the famous Abbey Garden on the island of Tresco.


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