Five facts you should know about puffins

'Clown of the sea' and 'sea parrot' are just two of the nicknames that have been given to Scotland's most recognisable seabird. Puffins are small, rounded birds that belong to the Auk family and weigh about the same as a can of Irn Bru. 

The species we have here in Scotland is known as the Atlantic puffin, though there are others found elsewhere, including the horned puffin and the tufted puffin. Atlantic puffins spend the winter out on the open ocean so are best spotted between April and August when they gather on land in breeding colonies. Here are five facts we thought you'd enjoy about them.

Puffins shed their bills

The most recognisable feature of a puffin is probably the colourful bill, with its bright splashes of orange and yellow. However they're not like this the whole year round. In winter, puffins actually shed their outer bills, leaving smaller, duller ones behind. Their bright orange feet fade noticeably at this time too. The brighter red and grey horny plates of the bill are grown in again ahead of the breeding season. 

They're pretty nippy

Despite their rather dumpy appearance, puffins are pretty speedy when they take to the air. They can travel at a top speed of 55 mph by flapping their wings up to 400 times a minute!

Puffins nest underground

At around two to three feet long a puffin burrow is about the same length as the arm of an adult human. Puffins dig out these burrows using their feet and bills, turfing the excess soil behind their little forms as they go. Once complete, they construct a soft nest of feathers and grass at the back, where they can safely incubate an egg and raise a chick.

They're pros when it comes to fishing

Puffins are one of only a few birds that are capable of holding several fish in their bills at one time. They can gather, on average, around ten sand eels on a single foraging trip, meaning they can bring more food back to their chicks; they don't have to regurgitate the meal for the young either. There are two adaptations which give puffins this special skill; their coarse tongues and a series of spines on their upper palates. When a puffin picks up a fish it pushes it against the spines with its tongue, allowing it to gather more without losing the ones it's already collected.

Young puffins are adventurers are heart

When young puffins are ready to fledge, they take to the ocean without their parents. And it's atop the waves where they remain until they are two or three years old. The puffins then usually return to nest in the colony where they hatched.

If you want to get out and see puffins in the wild, you could try: Dunnet Head, Troup Head, Fowlsheugh, some of RSPB Scotland’s sites on Orkney or Shetland, or in the Firth of Forth – particularly on the Isle of May.  

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