Scotland's Wildlife: Puffin

Puffin (c) RSPB images

One of the most unmistakable seabirds in the UK, puffins spend most of the year at sea, only returning to land to breed.

The puffn is a striking bird with a black back and white chest, black head with large pale cheeks and a tall, flattened, brightly-coloured bill. Its almost comical appearance is heightened by red and black eye-markings and bright orange legs. The puffin's latin name 'fratercula arctica', meaning 'little brother', probably refers to its black and white body's resemblance to monastic gowns.

It is common at colonies to see large numbers of puffins flying in wide circles. These wheels are thought to be a way of swamping predators, such as black-backed gulls, and reducing the risks for individual puffins. With half of the UK population located at only a few sites the puffin is an amber list species in the UK list for birds of conservation concern.

Where to see them

Puffin (c) RSPB images

Best looked for at a breeding colony. Try the Isle of May or Inchcolm (off the Fife coast); Staffa and the Treshnish Isles off Mull, Shetland and Orkney, as well as the Farne Islands on England's north west coast off Northumberland. The largest puffin colonies are on the remote archipelagoes of St. Kilda and the Shiants.

When to see them

Adults arrive back at the breeding colony in March and April and leave again in mid-August. Some remain in the North Sea at winter, other move further south to the Bay of Biscay.

Page first published on Monday 7th April 2008
Page last updated on Friday 17th October 2008

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Latin Name: Fratercula arctica
Gaelic Name: Budhaig (Bird with a belly), Seamus Ruadh (Red Jimmy) or Peata-ruadh (Red spoilt child)
Meaning: Bird with a belly, Red Jimmy or Red spoilt child
Body length 26-29cm
Wingspan 47-63cm
Weight 320-480g
Physical Description
Small, compact Auk with broad, colourful bill on grey face, smart black and white plumage and orange feet.
Scottish Distribution
Various cliff-faced coastline areas around Scotland.
Spends most of the year at sea, but breeds in turf burrows on the coast & islands facing the ocean.
Mostly marine fish especially sandeels.
In late March birds assemble on rafts just offshore.
Courtship displays are followed by the selection of a nest site. The pair excavate a shallow burrow and line it with feathers, grass and leaves.
The male defends his burrow entrance (among perhaps 50,000 others) with ‘pelican walk’ behaviour. This is a slow march with his head lowered to touch puffed-out breast feathers. A single egg is laid in early April and incubated for 36-45 days.
The hatched chick will take a further 34-60 days to fledge. Pre-breeding birds (aged two to five) will arrive from April. Younger birds arrive later in the summer.
When young birds fledge they head out to sea alone at night. They will not return to their breeding colony for at least 2 years and will not breed until they are 5 years old.

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