Tufted puffins are among the most beloved and easily recognized birds in the Aviary. The Oregon Coast Aquarium is fortunate enough to have a population of tufted puffins that readily breeds at the facility. Of the twenty tufted puffins that currently reside in the Aviary, half of them were hatched here!
The secret to this breeding success is providing our birds with the right conditions. Tufted puffins are burrow nesting birds; in the wild, these birds dig burrows into soil on cliffsides and offshore rocks. They typically return to the same burrow every year. Since tufted puffins are known to mate for life, the same pair will use the same burrow year after year, which works out well when the “burrow” (actually an artificial recess in the rockwork) is a permanent fixture in our Aviary.
Over the summer, we were pleased to have two of our puffin pairs rear chicks. Tufted puffins lay only one egg per season, so each chick represents a considerable investment of time and resources.
Once puffin chicks hatch in the Aviary, they’re often not visible to the public for the first 6-7 weeks. That’s because the pufflings (as they’re known) will stay back in the nesting chamber of their burrow. As they get older, they start to explore the tunnel leading from the chamber to the outside world. Parents will continue to bring the chick fish until it is ready to fledge, or fly down to join the other seabirds in the open areas.
Tufted puffin chicks typically fledge at night. At a puffin colony in the wild, hundreds of pufflings might be fledging on a given night, flying from their burrows out to the ocean, where they will remain for the next 2-3 years before returning to the nesting colony of their birth. In the Aviary, the chicks will first come out of their burrows under the cover of darkness, but will often make their way back to their burrows in the morning when people start to arrive. The keepers will get brief glimpses of the fledglings during the first morning checks, as they scurry out of the pool back to their burrows to hide for the day. This will continue for a few days or even weeks until the chick grows confident enough to linger out in the open. At this point, the keepers will then clean and shut all the burrows in preparation for winter, and the fledgling is gradually integrated with the flock.
Once the chicks fledge, they are on their own. In our aviary, the chicks have to figure out how to integrate themselves with 5 other species of birds. As they get braver, they will start watching and hanging around specific adult puffins (that allow it). We’ve observed these youngsters following adults and copying their behaviors, such as plucking grass from the exhibit’s planters.
Like any young animal figuring out its place in the world, our young puffins go through drastic changes in personality over the first couple of years. Just-fledged pufflings that start out very timid grow into confident and territorial juveniles, expressing dominant behavior to the adult birds around them. This continues until an adult eventually gets fed up and puts them back in their place. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?