Can Puffins Fly? (Complete Guide)

Can Puffins Fly? (Complete Guide)

The much-loved and emblematic puffin is a small to medium-sized seabird with a distinctive white face and large orange and yellow bill. Puffins are from the Alcidae family that contains a large variety of seabirds, also known as alcids or auks, and there are three species - the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica), Horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and Tufted or Crested puffin (Fratercula cirrhata).

These seabirds are perhaps not best-known for their flying abilities, so can puffins fly?

Puffins are excellent flyers, both in the air and under the water. With their short but powerful wings, puffins can achieve speeds exceeding 55mph (88kph), and at full speed, their wings beat some 400 times per minute! This super-fast wing action enables puffins to ‘fly’ underwater, and they’ve been known to dive to depths of some 60m (200ft).

Like many other birds in the Alcidae family, puffins are more skilled and accomplished on the water than they are in the air, though puffins are probably amongst the best flyers of all the auks.

Puffins mostly hunt fish from under the water, which is why they’ve evolved to dive, but they spot prey by making quick scans of the ocean from a distance of some 10m above its surface. Read on to discover more about the flying abilities of this much-loved quirky bird.

Atlantic, or Common Puffin in flight

Atlantic, or Common Puffin in flight

How far can puffins fly?

Puffins spend some eight months of the year out at sea before forming huge colonies for the breeding season, typically from April until August.

All three species of puffins migrate out to sea during the winter, and they face severe weather conditions on the open Pacific and Atlantic oceans, so whilst puffins aren’t generally considered migratory birds, it’d be unfair to say that they cannot fly long distances or cannot fly well. Some puffins travel hundreds of miles and likely roam huge distances of thousands of miles outside of the breeding season.

Whilst at sea, puffins are usually reasonably solitary, and their migratory routes vary hugely. A study of UK Atlantic puffin populations found that some head north during the winter, ending up in the North Atlantic or Greenland, whereas others head as far south as the Mediterranean!

It’s a similar story with the Horned and Tufted puffins, who are not strictly migratory but tend to winter far out at sea.

Puffins travel hundreds of miles during wintering and presumably spend a good deal of that time flying rather than bobbing about on the ocean. Whilst they are not known to be strong long-distance flyers, puffins are exceptionally proficient at navigating whilst over the open sea, which is how they manage to return to the same colonies year after year, often returning to the exact same burrow to breed.

Puffin flying in the sky

Puffin flying in the sky

How fast does a puffin fly?

Puffins are much faster than the average for seabirds of their size. Atlantic puffins can fly as fast as 55mph (88kph), and to sustain those sorts of speeds, their wings beat 400 times per minute!

Puffins need to beat their wings so fast because they have short, stocky bodies and short wings - they can’t soar like albatrosses or gulls and tend to fly in close proximity to the ocean at a height of around 10m or so.

At full speed, puffins are notoriously hard to spot and look like a flying football - their flapping wings become too blurry to see!

Their rapid wing speed also enables puffins to dive underwater and maintain their momentum for up to 1 minute, enough time to catch multiple fish in a single dive. Some puffins have been recorded diving to depths of some 60m (200ft), catching several fish in the process.

A colony of Tufted Puffins

A colony of Tufted Puffins

How high can puffins fly?

Puffins are not competent soaring birds - their wings are too short, and they’re too heavy. Like other auks (birds from the Alcidae family), they have evolved shorter wings that assist them in diving and swimming. As such, puffins do not fly high above the ocean's surface and cannot fly at great heights.

Puffins tend to stay a comfortable 10m above the surface of the ocean during flight (unless they are flying to and from a cliffside perch) - this is still much higher than other auks that like to maintain heights of some 1.5 to 2.0m from the surface of the ocean.

A horned puffin flying low over the sea

A horned puffin flying low over the sea

How long can puffins fly?

Puffins have not evolved for long-distance flight and possess short wings relative to their size and weight. This is why puffins have to beat their wings so hard and fast to attain full speed - they cannot generate lift as well as soaring seabirds such as gulls and albatrosses.

With that said, puffins must be able to fly long distances as they’ve been demonstrated to maintain quite complex and long-distance migratory routes. During winter, Atlantic puffins breeding in Europe migrate out to sea in an assortment of directions, both north, east, south and west, and many travel hundreds or thousands of miles in the process.

Some young puffins cross the entire Atlantic and end up in New York, whereas others go to Morocco!

It’s a similar story in North America, where puffins found as far south as California travel beyond Alaska and Canada or travel way out into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Puffin migratory routes are thought to be genetically programmed as they have an innate ability to navigate alone without following others, though they also group together at sea in flocks known as rafts.

Atlantic Puffin in flight with a beak full of fish

Atlantic Puffin in flight with a beak full of fish

Are puffins good at flying?

Unlike many birds from the Alcidae family, puffins are competent flyers. They can attain high speeds of 55mph (88kph) and are frequently observed flying across the surface of the ocean at break-neck speeds.

Whilst they are evolved for diving and swimming rather than flying, puffins are good at flying when compared to many other seabirds from the same family.

Overall, puffins are probably mischaracterised as poor flyers.

Puffin searching for food

Puffin searching for food

What age can baby puffins fly from?

Baby puffins fledge after around 34 to 60 days, and not long after, they will head out to sea alone.

As puffins grow and develop, they will roam the seas for some 2 to 5 years and will find a partner in the process, with whom they will mate for life.

During this time, the juvenile puffins will rarely, if ever, touch dry land; they eat, sleep and rest on the open ocean.

A juvenile Atlantic Puffin, or Puffling

A juvenile Atlantic Puffin, or Puffling

Do puffins migrate?

Puffins tend only to spend 2 to 3 months colonising during the typical breeding season of April until around August.

Puffin colonies can reach millions of birds, the largest probably being the Westmann Isles of Iceland which was home to 1.1 million puffin nests when surveyed in 2009.

Outside of the breeding season, puffins embark on a typically solitary ocean odyssey and all but disappear from their large-scale colonies.

For years, scientists and researchers would puzzle over where exactly puffins went outside of the breeding season, but studies using tracking locators found that many North American colonies travel north to the North Atlantic ocean during winter, whereas others travel south to California.

European populations travel either south, to Morocco and the Mediterranea, north to Greenland or west, into the Atlantic ocean.

The migratory patterns of puffins seem highly individualistic, and there’s clearly no unified preference of where to go. Whilst puffins spend much of this time on their own or in their mated pairs, they also form large floating flocks called rafts where they feed together.

Juvenile puffins spend most of their youth out at sea, and some won’t touch dry land until they’re sexually mature after around three years.

A large colony of Puffins, off the coast of Northumberland, UK

A large colony of Puffins, off the coast of Northumberland, UK

Can puffins swim?

All three species of puffins are highly competent swimmers. With their rather compact and buoyant body, short, powerful wings and large webbed feet, puffins have evolved for swimming and diving. They can dive to depths of over 60m (200ft) and are easily able to hold their breath for a whole minute or longer.

Whilst diving, puffins can catch multiple fish - some have been observed emerging from the water with as many as 10 in their bills! Whilst swimming, puffins use their large webbed feet and wings as propellers and rudders, torpedoing their water through the water at incredible speed.

Puffin swimming in the ocean

Puffin swimming in the ocean

Are puffins flightless?

Absolutely not! Puffins may come across as poor and incompetent flyers, or even as flightless, due to their resemblance to penguins.

The same can be said for much of their Alcidae family, or auks. In reality, puffins are pretty good at flying, attaining high speeds of 55mph (88kph) as they swoop across the surface of the ocean. Once they spot their prey, puffins dive into the water at high speed like a torpedo and use their wings to essentially fly underwater.

Flying puffin in the sky

Flying puffin in the sky

Do puffins swim or fly?

Puffins both swim and fly. Whilst puffins spend most of their life floating at sea rather than on land, they still fly to and from their spring colonies and breeding grounds.

Whilst puffin wings are pretty short and thin, they’re still able to fly at high speeds - though reaching max speed requires the puffin to flap its wings at an extraordinary 400 times per minute! As a result, puffins can’t sustain high-speed light for very long.

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