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The common name puffin describes any of three auk species (or alcids) in the bird genus Fratercula (Latin: little brother - probably a reference to their black and white plumage which resembles monastic robes) with a brightly colored beak in the breeding season. These are pelagic seabirds that feed primarily by diving. They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil.
Puffins are chunky birds with large bills. They shed the colourful outer parts of their bills after the mating season, leaving a smaller and duller beak. Their short wings are adapted for flying under water. In the air, they beat their wings rapidly (up to 100 times per minute) in swift flight, often flying low over the ocean's surface.
The male Atlantic Puffin builds the nest and exhibits strong nest site fidelity. Both sexes of the Horned Puffin help to construct their nest. The burrows of the Atlantic and Horned Puffin are usually only about 1 metre (3 feet) deep, ending in a chamber, but the tunnel leading to a Tufted Puffin burrow may be up to 2.75 metres (9 feet) in length. The Atlantic Puffin burrow is usually lined with material such as grass, leaves and feathers but is occasionally unlined. The eggs of the Atlantic Puffin are creamy white but can be occasionally tinged in lilac.
Unlike many animals, puffins form long-term pair bonds. The female lays a single egg, and both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick. The incubating parent holds the egg against their brood path with their wings. The chicks fledge at night. After fledging, the chicks spend the first few years of their lives at sea, returning to breed after three to six years.
Like many auks, puffins eat both fish and zooplankton, but feed their chicks primarily with small marine fish. The puffins are distinct in their ability to hold several (sometimes over a dozen) small fishes at a time, crosswise in their bill. This allows them to take longer foraging trips, since they can come back with more energy for their chick than a bird that can only carry one fish at a time.
Three species are recognized today:
- Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctica
- Horned Puffin, Fratercula corniculata
- Tufted Puffin, Fratercula cirrhata
The genus Fratercula probably evolved in the northern Pacific, like most lineages of auks. However, at least 2 undescribed prehistoric species are known to have occurred in the western Atlantic comparatively soon after the genus' emergence:
- Fratercula sp. 1 (Yorktown Early Pliocene of Lee Creek Mine, USA)
- Fratercula sp. 2 (Yorktown Early Pliocene of Lee Creek Mine, USA)
Another extinct species, Dow's Puffin (Fratercula dowi) was found on the Channel Islands of California until the Late Pleistocene or Early Holocene. It is possible that it became extinct due to overhunting and egg-collecting by early human settlers.