The Atlantic puffin, also known as the common puffin, is a species of seabird in the auk family. Like the kingfisher, the puffin is a bird that spends much of its time getting itself acquainted with the sea. The puffin swims on the surface of the water and feeds on fish and crabs, which it catches by diving underwater, using its wings for propulsion.
The puffin’s striking appearance, large, colourful bill, waddling gait and behaviour have given rise to nicknames such as “clown of the sea” and “sea parrot”.
After spending the autumn and winter months in the open ocean of the cold northern seas, the Atlantic puffin returns to coastal areas at the start of the breeding season in late spring. It nests in clifftop colonies, digging a burrow in which a single white egg is laid.
Chicks mostly feed on whole fish and grow into maturity rapidly. Six weeks after birth, they are fully-fledged and make their way at night to the sea. They swim away from the shore and do not return to land for several years. The migration happens almost overnight. One morning you wake up and they’ve gone.
Puffins are hunted for their eggs, feathers and meat. It is believed that they have been hunted since time immemorial. Coastal communities and island dwellers that had few other natural resources at their disposal have a longstanding tradition of subsisting on fish and seabirds. Islanders would regularly catch the birds by sitting on the cliff edges with huge nets. They would scoop the puffins up as they dove into the sea. This technique is called sky fishing.
The Blasket Islands off the Irish coast of County Kerry saw a serious decline in puffin populations due to harvesting. Until the islands were abandoned in the early 1950s, the islanders often lived just above starvation level. As a result, the puffins were hunted in large numbers for food.
Atlantic puffin populations drastically declined due to habitat destruction and exploitation during the 19th and early 20th centuries. While it has been outlawed in many places, they continue to be hunted in Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
The Atlantic puffin forms part of the national diet in Iceland, where the species does not have legal protection. Their meat is featured on hotel menus. The fresh heart of a puffin is eaten raw as a traditional Icelandic delicacy. On the small Icelandic island of Grimsey as many as 200 puffins can be caught in a single morning.