Same bird, different plumage

tufted puffin at the Seattle Aquarium

Tufted puffins are pelagic birds—which means they live on the open ocean—that come ashore only to nest during breeding season. These diving birds are built for life at sea. Underwater, their wings act as flippers and their feet act as rudders. They dive for and eat a variety of small schooling fish such as capelin, bird herring, sand eels, silversides and krill. They’re capable of carrying and holding several small fish at a time in their bills.

tufted puffin with breeding plumage

Tufted puffin with breeding plumage: all-black body; bright orange legs and feet; golden tufts of feather plumes extending from white “robber’s mask” on face; thick orange bill with greenish, ornamental bill plate.

tufted puffin with non-breeding plumage

Tufted puffin with non-breeding plumage: all-black body, including face and head; dull orange legs and feet; no feather tufts or bill plate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During their months at sea, tufted puffins display plain, non-breeding plumage. All that changes as they come ashore for the breeding months of April through September, when they molt and make the switch to the colorful breeding plumage that has earned them the nickname “clowns of the sea.” The difference between their appearances with non-breeding versus breeding plumage is quite remarkable—many people don’t realize they’re the same bird!

Here are some additional tufted puffin facts:

  • Birds molt, or change feathers, twice a year into breeding and non-breeding plumages. This is a very energetic process for the birds.
  • Puffins use their feet to dig underground burrows on cliff ledges or steep slopes, and construct nests by collecting dry grasses, small twigs, leaves, feathers, etc.
  • Both males and females incubate the egg and take care of young (usually taking turns).
  • Clutch size is usually one egg.
  • An egg is dull white in color and round-oval in shape (similar to a chicken egg), which corresponds to the egg being protected in a burrow.
  • Tufted puffins are capable of carrying and holding several small fish at a time in their bills.
  • Conservation status is of least concern, but oil spills, plastic ingestion/entanglement and overfishing continue to threaten this species and others in the wild.

Come visit our tufted puffins in the Birds and Shores exhibit at the Aquarium!

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