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The Atlantic puffin is a medium-sized alcid that is easily recognized by its large and colourful bill. It breeds on both sides of the North Atlantic, and in Europe, the vast majority of puffins breed along the Atlantic Ocean. In Svalbard, they nest in rock crevices and in holes among stones. The Atlantic puffin is the least numerous of Svalbard's alcids, and most colonies consist of scattered pairs breeding on steep cliffs.
The Atlantic puffin is a small, stocky auk which has a unique appearance with its large head and colourful bill. Male and female puffins have a similar appearance. Adult birds are approximately 30 cm in length and weigh 320–550 g. It is often called the ”sea parrot” because of its bill, which is tall, almost triangular, and laterally flattened. The sides of the bill have deep colourful grooves that are red, yellow and blue.
In breeding plumage the puffin’s crown, neck and upper-parts are black, whereas the belly and sides are white. The sides of the head are grey-white and the legs are orange-red.
In winter, the sides of the head are a darker grey and the legs are yellowish. The bill is also paler and smaller because several horny layers fall off during winter. Juvenile birds resemble the adults in winter plumage, but the neck is greyer and the bill is smaller and dully coloured a grey-brown.
The species is monotypic, but three sub-species are recognized. The Svalbard puffin belongs to the sub-species, Fratercula arctica naumanni, which is larger than the Atlantic puffins at more southerly latitudes. The puffins breeding on Spitsbergen are significant larger than those in any other population.
The voice is a deep, prolonged growl.
The Atlantic puffin breeds on both sides of the North Atlantic from the north-eastern parts of North America and Britanny in the south to Greenland, Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya in the north. In Europe, the vast majority of puffins breed along the Atlantic Ocean and Norwegian Sea. Less than 1 % of the population breeds in the high-Arctic marine zone.
In Svalbard, the Atlantic puffin breeds on Bjørnøya and along the western coast of Spitsbergen, especially in the north (north to Sjuøyane). A few scattered colonies also occur in the eastern part of the archipelago, including Hopen. A total of 50 colonies are known in Svalbard. The wintering area of the Svalbard population is not known, but many birds probably winter in the Barents Sea and further to the south in the northeast Atlantic. Their arrival and departure dates from Svalbard are not precisely known, but in some parts of the archipelago they arrive in early or mid May and are still present in significant numbers long after most of the other auks have departed.
On Spitsbergen adults have been observed feeding chicks in the last week of September. In north Norway, the Atlantic puffin usually arrives at the breeding site in late March or early April.
The Atlantic puffin is a highly colonial species with pairs typically nesting in underground burrows that are dug in grass-covered soil on offshore islands. Where such habitat is in short supply, like in Svalbard (due to lack of soil or, where soil is present, permafrost), puffins nest in rock crevices and in holes among stones. In temperate and low arctic areas, the Atlantic puffin sometimes forms very large colonies.
On Spitsbergen, most colonies consist of scattered pairs breeding on steep cliffs that are usually dominated by Brünnich’s guillemots and black-legged kittiwakes. Some of the largest colonies are located in Sjuøyane in scree areas (areas of loose rock).
The Atlantic puffin feeds mainly on small schooling fish. Crustaceans, squid and polychaete worms (Nereidae) are also important, especially outside the breeding season. Even in the breeding season most puffins search for food in offshore, pelagic waters. Birds in some colonies may feed in fjords, but littoral prey is almost absent from the diet offered to chicks. Outside the breeding season they are pelagic in their distribution and feeding habits.
Little is known about the general breeding biology of the Atlantic puffin in Svalbard. The single white egg (that occasionally has pale speckles) is incubated by both sexes for about six weeks.
The nestling, which has a black downy plumage with a white belly, remains in the nest until it is fully fledged and independent. It is fed mostly on fish, but also eats some crustaceans and pelagic pteropods. The fledging period varies from 5–10 weeks depending on the food supply.
The Alantic puffin is sexually mature when it is three or four years old, but the age at the first breeding is usually between five to eight years. Adult survival is high, with most estimates of survivorship in the range of 90–95 %. Thus, many birds reach a considerable age (over 40 years).
After the razorbill, which only nests in low numbers on Bjørnøya and some few colonies on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the Atlantic puffin is the least numerous of Svalbard’s alcids. Because there are so few Atlantic puffins in Svalbard, and because they nest in inaccessible places, few studies have been conducted on this species on the archipelago.
The total population in Svalbard is probably about 10,000 pairs, although no detailed census has been made. No information is available about the status of the population. There are, however, no indications that the Svalbard population has declined over the last decades to the same degree as some puffin populations in northern Norway. The decline in northern Norway is probably associated with the collapse in the herring stock, which is not an important food species for puffins in the Svalbard area.