It’s official, as from October 29th 2015 puffins are now in peril and have been added to the endangered species list. Puffins are now as endangered as elephants and lions. The problem for puffins is caused by the rise in global temperature which is causing the main food source for their chicks in the breeding season to head further out to sea into deeper, colder water. This means the food is now out of reach for the puffins when they are nesting on land. Puffins feed their chicks mainly on sand eels and it is these that are moving into cold deeper water further from the shores where puffins rear their chicks. There has been an explosion in the numbers of ‘snake pipe fish’ which are replacing the sand eel population and the puffins are now feeding these intruders to the chicks. Unfortunately these are bony seahorse types of creatures and grow up to eighteen inches long and the puffin chicks are choking on them. The results have been devastating and the population of puffins have crashed over the last few years.
Puffins spend the autumn and winter in the open ocean of the cold northern seas, they return to coastal areas each year at the start of the breeding season in late spring. They nest in cliff top colonies, digging a burrow or often using unoccupied rabbit burrows in which a single white egg is laid. The chick mostly feeds on whole sand eels and grows rapidly. After about six weeks it is fully fledged and makes its way at night to the sea. It swims away from the shore and will not return to land for several years. Underwater, puffins use their wings to propel themselves and look just as if they are flying in the air when hunting down their food which is mostly sand eels and other small fish like herring, sprats and capelin.
The characteristic bright orange bill plates and other facial characteristics develop in the spring. At the close of the breeding season, these special coatings and appendages are shed in a partial moult. This makes the beak appear less broad, the tip less bright and the base darker grey. The eye ornaments are shed and the eyes appear round. At the same time, the feathers of the head and neck are replaced and the face becomes darker. This winter plumage is seldom seen by humans because when they have left their chicks, the birds head out to sea and do not return to land until the next breeding season.
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