The much-loved Puffin is an emblematic bird known for its quirky behavior and unique bill and plumage. There are three species of puffins in the Alcid family (the Auks), though the most common is the Atlantic puffin. Puffins are hardworking birds that inhabit challenging environments, but do puffins mate for life?
Puffins are monogamous, and pairs remain together for consecutive breeding seasons. In most cases, couples stay together for their entire lifespan, which might amount to 15 years, as puffins don’t breed until they’re around five years old.
Like most monogamous birds, puffins may still divorce, though divorce rates are only around 7%. Divorce can occur if the puffin pair fails to raise chicks or if one becomes sick.
Raising puffin chicks is an intensive business, as the young birds take around 40 days to leave their burrows. In addition, female puffins lay just one egg - so the stakes are high. As a result, males and females work together to raise their chick and collaborate in everything from incubating to brooding and feeding.
Of course, there’s much more to learn about this fantastic bird - read on to find out!
Puffins often do mate for life, and this is the same case for all species
There are three species of puffin, the Atlantic puffin, Horned puffin, and Tufted puffin. All three are reportedly monogamous and form life-long pair bonds.
Divorce rates are also low at under 10%, which is definitely below the average of birds considered monogamous.
Interestingly, puffins form strong bonds despite only being with each other for around 1/3rd of the year in the breeding season. The rest of the time, they go out to sea and are pretty solitary, spending most of their time alone.
A pair of Horned Puffins perched together
Puffins divorce if they fail to raise a successful chick for successive breeding seasons or if one bird becomes sick. Ornithologists believe that divorce is an adaptive behavior, i.e., birds have learned that divorcing provides better prospects than persisting with a sub-optimal partner.
Despite most puffins forming life-long pair bonds, some pairs inevitably divorce. Divorce rates are around 7% to 15%, which is low among other monogamous birds.
In fact, divorce rates among seabirds, including puffins, tend to be low. Furthermore, low divorce rates are observed across the Alcid family, including the murres, guillemots, auklets, puffins, and murrelets. Raising young birds at sea is perilous - couples must work closely to succeed.
A pair of Tufted Puffins watching on from their perch
Puffin courtship initially occurs at sea, and little is known about how pair bonds form between juvenile birds that have just reached sexual maturity. In the breeding season, puffins flock to islands and coastal environments in vast colonies.
Birds who paired last season will reunite at sea or on land. Males head to the same burrow they used last season and grunt to attract their mate while flicking their heads back and forth. The guttural grunt has been described as pig-like.
Once the female joins him, they rub their bills together to greet each other and re-establish the pair bond. Interestingly, experienced pairs often reestablish their pair bonds at sea, so they’re ready to lay as soon as they reach land.
Courtship ritual of Atlantic puffins in summer, Scotland, UK
Puffins mate once per year. First, the female lays a single egg in the burrow, which is incubated by both the male and female for just over 40 days - a lengthy incubation period.
The male and female collaborate on almost every aspect of raising their single puffin chick - also called a puffling. This keeps the fledgling success rate high - around 80 to 90% in one study.
This is the case for all three species of puffin.
Close up of a Puffling
If a puffin’s mate dies, it's thought that they will re-pair with another next breeding season. There’s little evidence of exactly what happens, but since some 10 to 15% of adults die each year, some birds are inevitably left without partners.
Re-pairing may happen at sea, but it could also occur on land when a male or female realizes that his/her partner isn’t returning.
Most puffins are solitary during migration and temporarily separate from their partner. Puffins migrate out to sea in winter. Most head to warmer waters, but some remain reasonably close to their breeding grounds.
It’s not known why puffins become so solitary in their winter migration. However, one study found that some puffin pairs follow similar migration routes - and those pairs also happened to be more successful during the breeding season.
We’re still unsure what puffins do when they leave their breeding colonies in the winter. They can rest and sleep on the water for up to 8 months!
Most puffins are solitary during migration and temporarily separate from their partner
There’s no evidence of mourning in puffins, but it’s certainly possible that there is some sort of mourning period before they choose to re-pair with another bird.
Many strongly monogamous birds do mourn the loss of their mate, most notably Mute swans and albatrosses, who can take 3 years to re-pair with another bird after losing their partner.
Once young puffins fledge and leave the nest, they depart to sea, where they remain for up to 3 to 5 years. A young puffin probably won't set foot on dry land for the first 3 years of its life.
Puffins take 4 to 5 years to reach sexual maturity and spend the vast majority of that time at sea. 4 or 5-year-old puffins head to colonies with breeding adults but may not mate that year - they often just hang around the breeding colony and watch.
An Atlantic Puffin colony on the cliffs of Grimsey Island, Iceland
There’s no evidence of puffins mating with their siblings. In fact, inbreeding in birds is rare and only occurs when there's extreme pressure on birds to mate, e.g., when the total population is declining rapidly due to habitat loss.
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