Puffins are back on land and breeding, but they’re only around for a short while each year! Read more about these comical seabirds and where to see them with RSPB England’s Lucy Hodson…

Sea clowns, sea parrots or just plain and simple puffins – these colourful, characterful birds seem to capture hearts and minds wherever we encounter them.

We only have a relatively narrow window in which to see puffins each year. Most of their time, throughout autumn and winter, is spent far out at sea. Here the puffins will live in the water 24 hours a day – eating fish and bobbing about on the waves.

If you cast your eyes to the horizon near their breeding grounds in spring, you might make out some little black figures bobbling along in the sea. Puffins! Before returning to land, puffins start gathering in floating gangs called rafts, getting ready to start nesting.

They’ll return to their nesting grounds in April and leave by the end of July or early August, so they’re definitely more seabirds than land-birds!

Can puffins fly?

Yes! Puffins can fly. During breeding season they often take long daily journeys to feeding grounds and, despite their funny appearance, their flight is quite impressive.

You’ll see them zooming along close to the surface of the sea, at speeds up to 50mph! Their landing ability is notoriously a little less impressive. Spend any amount of time near a colony and you’ll quickly get used to witnessing crash landings, tumbles and not-so-graceful trips.

As well as airborne flyers – puffins are also pilots of the sea. They can swim and dive deep under the waves in pursuit of fish. Whilst fishing, the puffins will ‘fly’ underwater, flapping their wings and using their feet as a rudder.  


What do puffins eat?


Puffins are carnivorous and are fish specialists. They have a fondness for very certain types of fish, particularly sand eels, but also herring and sprats.

These birds are built for catching slippery, fiddly fish out in the middle of the buffeting sea. Their mouthparts alone have evolved several clever features:

  • Wrinkly hinges – that wrinkled, yellow skin around a puffin’s beak acts as a hinge, allowing their mandibles to be held parallel to each other and have multiple fish packed in
  • Prickly tongues – puffin tongues are covered in spines and grooves to help them grip onto wriggling, slippery sand eels
  • Saw-like serrations – their beaks are serrated, providing a rough surface to grip onto several wet fish at once

You can see puffins carrying fish as they come into land and feed their young. On average they’ll pack 10 fish, one after another, into a mouthful – but some have been seen carrying upwards of fifty!

Get involved: if you’ve taken photos of a puffin with its lunch, the RSPB wants to know. Take part in Puffarazzi, and help us map changes in their food types and abundance.


What do puffins sound like?

Puffins have a lot of behaviours that you might not normally associate with birds. Firstly, they nest in burrows, rather than trees or bushes.

Secondly, they make some strange noises! Rather than tweets or squawks, puffins make some strange noises for a bird. Their calls have been compared to cow’s moos, a creaking door, or a chainsaw starting up. Take a listen and decide for yourself!


Are puffins endangered?

Although there’s a good number of Atlantic puffins in the world (around 10million), their numbers have been falling significantly in recent decades, leading them to be reclassified as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN’s Red List.

Puffins have to fight several human-caused battles to survive. Depletion of their food from overfishing, pollution of the seas they swim in, getting tangled in fishing nets and rubbish, predation by introduced predators – there’s lots of dangers if you’re a clown of the sea.

Puffins are also affected by climate change, as their food sources are influenced by sea temperatures.

In the UK, the population is thought to be relatively stable – however it is still vulnerable. As puffins are confined to only a few islands and other locations, each individual population is susceptible to its own issues.


When are puffins at Bempton cliffs?

In the UK we’re lucky enough to have a few nesting colonies of these birds – mostly on islands off Scotland, Wales and England. But you don’t always have to travel by boat to see them! A good number of breeding puffins can be seen at our Bempton Cliffs Nature Reserve in East Yorkshire.

The best time to see puffins and a whole host of other seabirds at Bempton Cliffs is in late spring and early summer.

Covid-19 – visiting puffin colonies

With lockdown measures being eased in different ways and timescales across the four countries of the UK, please follow the latest guidance for where you live along with any specific advice for the colony you wish to visit.