Tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)

A close up of a tufted puffin nesting on a rocky ledge with some grassy vegetation
A nesting tufted puffin.  (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Alaska Region)
Tufted puffin
Tufted puffin digging a nesting burrow on Jagged Island off the Washington outer coast.
Category: Birds
Ecosystems: Marine shorelines
State status: Endangered
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

In Washington, this striking seabird with its white face and large orange bill has experienced an order-of-magnitude population decline in recent decades and has disappeared from more than half of its historical breeding sites. Sources of impacts have not been clearly confirmed. 

Description and Range

Physical description

During the breeding season, tufted puffins are distinct in appearance, with a large orange and yellow bill, a white mask, yellow eyes, and a pair of yellow feathered tufts that arch backward from their eyebrows. Their bodies are primarily brownish-black, and their feet are orange. Wintering adults retain some orange in their bills but do not have a white mask or yellow head tufts. Juveniles have a smaller yellowish bill and are dark brownish-gray above and lighter below. 

Ecology and life history

Tufted puffins gather in colonies on isolated offshore islands and in accessible headlands during spring and summer to build nests and rear young. During the non-breeding season, tufted puffins winter alone or in small groups at sea.

Close up of a tufted puffin in flight over a sea, carrying fish in its beak
An adult tufted puffin in flight with fish in its beak. ​ kuhnmi - Creative Commons kuhnmi - Creative Commons

Foraging occurs from nearshore waters to open sea during the breeding season. They are members of the auk family, with stocky bodies adapted to “flying” underwater as they dive in pursuit of a wide range of fish and invertebrate prey.

The breeding season extends from mid-April to early September in Washington. Nesting occurs in burrows where a single egg is laid. Rocky areas and thickets are sometimes used for nesting. Preferred nesting habitat includes grassy slopes, bluffs, and plateaus with soil deep enough for burrowing in locations free of introduced predators and human disturbance.

Incubation is performed by both members of the breeding pair and usually lasts between 43 and 46 days. Rates of chick growth and survival depend on prey availability and quality. Nesting tufted puffins prefer to forage locally for their nestlings, and are famed for carrying many – occasionally more than 20 – small fish at one time, neatly lined up and carried crosswise in their large bills. In scarce prey years, adults will feed the most nutritious food to their chicks until fledging, at which time the chicks are fully independent.

Two tufted puffins perching on a rocky cliff
Two adult tufted puffins in breeding plumage on a rocky cliff. Isaac C. Sanchez - Creative Commons

Tufted puffins at colonies experience predation from bald eagles and other predators, and kleptoparasitism (food stealing) by gulls.

Geographic range

The tufted puffin is found throughout the upper latitudes of the North Pacific Ocean. It spends the winter at sea, and nests during spring and summer in coastal colonies from California north to Alaska, and from Siberia south to Japan. Steep population declines throughout the southern part of its range suggest that the species may be undergoing a significant range contraction.

In Washington, breeding occurs on islands along the northern outer coast and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The population has been declining since at least the 1980s, with minimum population estimates falling from 23,342 birds in 1978 through 1982 to 2,958 birds in 2009, and only 19 of 44 historical breeding sites remaining occupied.

The species is very rare during the winter months.

For maps of range-wide distribution and conservation status of this species, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Redlist.

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Moderate

Tufted puffins will mainly be sensitive to climate change through alterations to their breeding habitat and food supply. Predicted increases in sea surface temperature could lead to declines in abundance of zooplankton and small forage fish that puffins and other seabirds prey upon. Local declines in prey availability could lead to slower growth rates and reproductive failure. Additionally, sea level rise could impact nesting and foraging habitat by altering the intertidal and subtidal areas. Nesting habitat (i.e., burrowing sites) could also be impacted by increased storm frequency, through damage and destruction of nesting areas.
 

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Increased ocean temperatures
  • Increased storminess
  • Sea level rise
Confidence: Moderate

Conservation

This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

Formerly common in Washington along the outer coast and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and San Juan Islands, tufted puffins have suffered the reduction and disappearance of many breeding colonies in the state, accompanied by a dramatic population decline. Reasons for the decline are uncertain, but may include reduced prey availability, predation at nesting colonies, human disturbance (mainly historical), and factors related to climate change.

  • Resource information collection needs
    • Threat: The cause(s) of population declines in Washington are unknown.
    • Action: Conduct research to determine causes of population declines.
  • Overharvesting of biological resources
    • Threat: Entrapment in fishing nets.
    • Action: Determine ongoing sources of bycatch and manage those fisheries to reduce bycatch.
  • Energy development and distribution
    • Threat: Mortality from oil spills.
    • Action: Expand safeguards to prevent oil spills.
  • Climate change and severe weather
    • Threat: Reduced prey availability can result from changing ocean conditions (including climate change), overharvest, shoreline habitat loss, and other factors.
    • Action: Determine causes of declining prey availability; manage causes of forage fish decline to enhance prey populations.

See the Climate vulnerability section above for more information about the threats posed by climate change to this species. 

    Resources

    References

    Hanson, T. and G. J. Wiles. 2015. Washington state status report for the Tufted Puffin. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington.

    Hanson, T., S. F. Pearson, P. Hodum, and D. W. Stinson. 2019. Tufted Puffin Recovery Plan and Periodic Status Review. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington

    Piatt, J. F., and A. S. Kitaysky. 2002. Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata). Birds of North America 708: 1-31. Hanson, T. and G.

    WDFW publications

    Status reports

    Other resources