Puffins are an easily recognizable species and because of their iconic looks, are often called parrots of the sea or even sea clowns. These birds live their entire lives near or on the sea in the Northern Hemisphere and technically speaking, there are four species: tufted puffins, horned puffins, Atlantic puffins, and Rhinoceros Auklets. The Atlantic Puffin, as you might imagine, is the only puffin found in the Atlantic Ocean while the others call the Pacific Ocean home. In fact, puffins are some of the most emblematic seabirds of the North Pacific and Bering Sea.

Being a marine bird means that puffins are decent flyers but they are even better swimmers. They can reach speeds of 55 miles an hour while flying, a feat accomplished by flapping their wings 400 beats a minute. Puffins can also dive 200 feet below the ocean surface and will use their feet to steer like rudders to help catch fish, an important feature as their diet consists of small fish, mollusks, cephalopods, and crustaceans. During the breeding season, adult puffins will go hunting for fish and thanks to the structure of their beaks, they are able to hold a large amount of fish to bring back to pufflings.

As far as puffin species go, the Tufted Puffin is the one people are most likely to see around and off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest, as they can be found from southern California to Arctic Alaska and even off of Russia and Japan. These puffins are the largest puffins and are named for their iconic yellow feather tufts that sprout off of their heads during the breeding season. Tufted puffins were once common to see in the Salish Sea and off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, with tens of thousands of birds across at least 40 nesting colonies found off Washington alone at one point. But that population has declined significantly and now estimates suggest that there are less than 3,000 birds in the state.

As mentioned, puffins spend a significant portion of the year (and their lives) out on the open ocean and will only come to shore to lay eggs and raise their young, usually from mid-April to early September. When they do come to shore, puffins prefer coastal areas, with habitats like rocky cliffs, grassy slopes, bluffs, and plateaus providing safe places for their burrows and nests. These birds will come to shore during the spring and early summer to raise their young and can be seen in places like Cannon Beach from April to July. Haystack Rock in Oregon is one of the easiest ways for people to actually see puffins from shore, as the rock is a favorite for Tufted Puffins. However, the Oregon Coast Tufted Puffin population, like Washington’s population, is declining.

There are, unfortunately, many reasons why the puffin population has declined so sharply over the last few decades, including pollution, warming ocean temperatures, breeding habitat disturbance, and more. Oil spills have caused the deaths of thousands of birds, as these birds spend a significant amount of time on the surface of the ocean. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill resulted in an estimated 13,000 Alaskan tufted puffins dying while just two years late in 1991, the Tenyo Maru oil spill resulted in 400,000 gallons of fuel oil being spilled just off of Cape Flattery and caused 10% of Washington’s tufted puffins also to die. More recently, hundreds of dead puffins washed ashore in Alaska in 2016, with starvation being the leading guess as to why so many had died and washed up on Alaskan beaches.

Given the puffin’s alarming decline, it’s important to give these birds plenty of space if you see them in the wild – both on land and out at sea. If you are not able to go to places like Oregon’s Cannon Beach to see puffins but still want to see what life is like for them, you can watch puffins on the National Audubon Society’s Live Puffin Cam on Seal Island in Maine (try to spot their amazing puffin decoy!). Additionally, organizations like The SeaDoc Society and Friends of Haystack Rock are working hard to both research and advocate for puffins in the Pacific Northwest. These birds are so amazing and the conservation of all four puffin species is vital for our planet’s biodiversity.

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