Sea Parrots of the Farallon Islands

Tufted Puffins

This story by PRBO Conservation Science researcher Else Jensen was originally published in the Spring 2000 issue of Tideline, the quarterly newsletter of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

"Puffins in San Francisco?" My friends ask when I tell them I study tufted puffins on Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. They are surprised to hear that a colony of tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) exists just 25 miles out to sea from the Golden Gate.

The second question is usually accompanied by knitted brows, "What exactly is a puffin? Are they like penguins?"

I stack my hands about 15 inches apart saying, "They’re about so tall." Then I spread my hands apart to indicate a chunky bird. "They’re jet black from head to tail, except for a white facial mask." Here I trace a triangle from the center of my face tapering to my ears. "And long blond plumes at the end of a facial mask." I sweep my fingers back from my head to indicate the two thin plumes that wave in the wind. These plumes give them their name, tufted puffin. "And a huge orange and yellow beak, like a parrot." I gesture in front of my face to indicate the massive glorious beak of the breeding tufted puffin, at times in history known as the "sea parrot."

"Can they fly?" ask my undaunted friends.

"Barely," I answer. "They have nests high on cliffs to compensate how far they need to drop after takeoff before they’re airborne. They’re the northern hemisphere counterparts to penguins in terms of ecological niche."

These dapper black seabirds with their fantastic beaks and plumes arrive every spring to mate and raise young on the steep cliffs of the southeast Farallon island that is part of the archipelago that make up the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. From April to September, they are seen in the waters around the Refuge. They have also been sighted from the Point Reyes lighthouse, and two or three pairs are thought to breed there.

Tufted puffins only come ashore to nest and raise their young. The rest of the year they live, feed, and sleep on the open Pacific waters. The puffins arrive, along with thousands of other seabirds, to the Refuge in late March and early April. Twelve nesting seabird species compete for nesting space, vegetative nesting material, partners, and fish to feed their offspring. 

The island has a carnival atmosphere, with western gulls acting the court jesters jousting and cavorting 24 hours a day. The gulls fill the air with their constant cries. Their nests pack the marine terraces and slopes of the island. They terrorize the other birds, and all species have had to adapt in order to protect themselves, their eggs, and their young. To elude the gulls, cormorants form colonial clusters of nests that are densely packed together like a circling of the wagons. Murres huddle close to the cormorants and to each other, hoping to exclude the gulls from their colony. Auklets and petrals fly to and from their burrows only at night to avoid hungry gulls, who would gladly eat the adult birds given a chance. Biologists have also adapted and wear hard hats to protect themselves from the dive-bombing gulls. 

High on the cliffs above the raucous interplay of gulls, murres, and cormorants, tufted puffins and pigeon guillemots vie for the limited number of rocky crevices where both species lay their eggs and incubate their young. These crevices are so deep, longer than the reach of a human arm, that they are virtually gull proof. The puffin is a bigger bird than the guillemot and usually takes the day, edging out the docile guillemots. In other parts of their breeding range, such as coastal islands of Alaska, the puffin digs earthen burrows deep into hillsides. However, this is not an option on the rock bound Farallon islands. 

When a pair arrives in the spring, they fly around the island looking for a crevice with "a nice porch" - a rocky platform where they can take off and land easily, as well as sleep and preen themselves after bathing. If they are a returning couple, they usually use their 

old crevice. If they are new breeders, a lot of time is spent flying around, being ejected from already occupied crevices and battling with pigeon guillemots and western gulls until a suitable crevice is found. 

Puffins begin to breed when they are four years old, but arrive on the island one year earlier to look for a mate and scout out a crevice. Puffins mate for life unless a partner dies. The survivor then chooses a new mate. There have been instances of a puffin divorce reported. One wonders what the troubling issues are in a puffin marriage.

Early in the breeding season, the couple engages in courtship behavior in which they face one another hunched forward, lock beaks, and flip their heads from side to side. The long plumes waving in the wind still makes me sigh. They then fly to sea, repeat the behavior floating on the water. The male mounts the female in the water. Copulation takes place with the female half underwater, both birds flapping like crazy to stay afloat. Puffins also pull Farallon weed, an endemic species, as part of their courtship and clamber up rocky scree slopes holding two or three delicate strands in their beaks.

A single off-white egg is laid in a chamber lined with a sparse layer of the Farallon weed. Once the egg has been laid, only one bird is seen at a time. The couple takes turns incubating the egg. The free partner is often seen dozing on the porch or flying off to sea to bathe and feed after a long shift sitting on the egg deep in the dark crevice. The incubation is 41 days, which is a long time even by seabird standards.

As a researcher, I know the egg has hatched when I see the adults flying overhead carrying fish crosswise in their beak. The adults bring fish to the nest site, usually anchovies, rockfish, and squid, to feed the new chick. They forage in the water of the continental shelf, flying about 30 miles from the island, going even further in poor fish years. Puffins swim extremely well underwater, and can dive up to 330 feet to pursue fish. The chicks fledge at 45 days, flying out to sea at night to avoid gull predation.

In the fall the adult birds lose their tufts and bright beaks. The horny shell of the beak is shed and replaced with a smaller gray beak tipped in orange. The crisp white eye patch becomes infiltrated with gray. The adults return to the open waters of the Pacific, where they can be seen on pelagic trips but not as readily identified as when in their breeding plumage.

We know very little about puffin chicks as they are left undisturbed and unbanded due to the overall fragile status of the species in the San Francisco Bay Area. Studies of the tufted puffin on the Refuge are limited to yearly census of adult birds, behavior observations to estimate the number of breeding birds, and monitoring of adults carrying fish to estimate the number of chicks produced. Arrival and departure times are also followed on a yearly basis, as well as the availability of the food supply. In years where 

fish are scarce, puffins would arrive late to the island and leave early.

Our Farallon colony, now numbering around 120 birds, is the southernmost nesting colony of tufted puffins. In the early 1900's, there were an estimated 2,000 puffins on the Farallon islands. In 1959, it declined to 26 individuals. 

Editor’s Note: The Farallon National Wildlife Refuge contains the largest seabird nesting colony south of Alaska. Researchers from Point Reyes Bird Observatory monitor nesting seabirds and marine mammals, and are caretakers of the island under a cooperative agreement. Farallon National Wildlife Refuge is closed to the public due the sensitive nature of the species to disturbance. However, private whale-watching companies offer pelagic boat trips that cruise around the island.

Else Jensen is a physician in Oakland and has been a research associate for six years for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.