Horned Puffin

Horned Puffin

Fratercula corniculata
Population size
1.2 mln
Life Span
over 20 yrs
64 km/h
500 g
20 cm
36-41 cm

The Horned puffin is a beautiful seabird found in the North Pacific Ocean. It is similar in appearance to the Atlantic puffin, its closest relative of the North Atlantic; it only differs by a "horn" of black skin located above the eye, from which the bird derives its common name - the Horned puffin.


Horned puffins are present throughout the northern Pacific Ocean, including the Shumagin Islands of the Bering Sea, the Siberian coast, Kamchatka, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. In North America, they are found on the western coasts of Alaska and British Columbia, Haida Gwaii, and the Aleutian Islands. These birds are also found in the vicinity of the Chukchi Sea and especially on Wrangel Island. More rarely, they travel as far south as Japan and the coasts of Oregon and California. Horned puffins are not migratory birds. They live among steep rocky slopes and cliffs and winter far out to sea.


Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Horned puffins live and breed in colonies of tens to thousands or more. They fly in circular motions above the colony before landing, upon which they adopt a dominant or submissive posture towards other birds. When on land, these birds move by walking upright, gripping rock surfaces with their claws, and climb cliffs with ease. Horned puffins fly compactly and quickly; they fly in groups of about 2 to 15 individuals, traveling between nesting and foraging grounds, sometimes with tufted puffins or murres. These birds spend half of their time on the water, paddling along the surface with their feet. They are extremely agile underwater and their movement can be called "underwater flight" rather than swimming. To catch fish, Horned puffins dive down to about 30 meters (98 ft), pursuing prey mostly taking place at 15 meters (49 ft) in depth. They commonly hunt in the early morning. They dive headfirst into the water, as they stake out a school of fish, and keep an eye out for predators. Once the prey is spotted, puffins dive in pursuit. They usually swallow several small fish before bringing rest back to the colony. Horned puffins are usually silent and emit a relatively small number of sounds, mostly low in volume. These guttural noises are described as cooing, roaring, or grunting. Their most common sound is 'arr-arr-arr', which accelerates when the birds are threatened, becoming an 'A-gaa-kah-kha-kha'. During the breeding season puffins emit 'Op-op-op-op-op'. These sounds are rarely made outside breeding times, and Horned puffins are quieter at sea.

Group name
Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Horned puffins are carnivores (piscivores) and feed mainly on fish. They also eat small invertebrates, crustaceans, polychaete worms, squid, and sometimes consume small algae and marine plants.

Mating Habits

41 days
40 days
1 egg

Horned puffins are monogamous and form pairs that mate for life. They breed between May to September. Courtship begins as the male and female puffin swim alongside the water. The male displays by arising from the water, neck outstretched, opening, and closing the bill while jerking the head. The female makes a hunched posture with her neck contracted inwards, close to the water surface. This is followed by billing, a practice where mated birds touch beaks. Pairs choose a nesting ground a week after arriving at the breeding area, preferring rock crevices. They clear a space and gather materials to build their nest, mostly out of grass and feathers. Each pair lays only one egg per year. The egg is oval, off-white in color with lavender, gray and brown highlights. Both parents take turns incubating the egg over about 41 days and spend another 40 days raising the chick. The fledgling leaves the nest alone and at night, making its way towards open water, then quickly dives and swims away to begin an independent life. It will reach reproductive maturity between the age of 5 and 7 years.


Population threats

The main threats to Horned puffins include habitat loss, oil spills, bycatch in fishing gillnets, pollution and predation by invasive species such as rats and foxes.

Population number

According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Horned puffin is more than 1,200,000 individuals. The population in Russia consists of around 100-100,000 breeding pairs and around 50-10,000 wintering individuals. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List but its numbers today are decreasing.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • The scientific name of this bird, Fratercula corniculata, comes from the Medieval Latin 'fratercula' and means 'friar'; this is due to their black-and-white plumage which resembles the robes of monks. The name 'corniculata' means 'horn-shaped' or 'crescent-shaped', in reference to the black horn above the bird's eye.
  • The Yup’ik (Eskimo people of western and southwestern Alaska) call the puffin "qilangaq", "qengacuar(aq)" (“little nose”), or "qategarpak" (“large white breast”).
  • The Horned puffin's bill is red at the tip and yellow at the base. In summer (breeding) plumage, the bill's outer layer grows in size and turns bright yellow with a dark orange tip. The size and color of the outer layer help to attract a mate.
  • The puffin's bill has fluorescent properties that are also used to attract a partner. Puffins can see ultraviolet rays, allowing them to spot luminescence on the bills of other puffins during the courtship display.
  • To achieve flight, Horned puffins either jump off a cliff to gain momentum or race across the water to reach the speed required for takeoff.
  • Horned puffins show dominance by holding their beak open with their tongue lowered (known as "gaping"), back feathers erect, and step in place as they rock from side to side. This gesture is often made towards a rival puffin, who may either back down or fight with the intruder. During fights, puffins lock bills and beat each other with their wings, and the two combatants may even tumble down a slope or cliff still locked in battle.
  • Horned puffins have waterproof plumage, which permits them to dive and prevents rapid heat loss. This is possible due to their feather disposition and a specialized gland near the tail. This gland secretes a liquid that the puffin spreads on its plumage with its beak, permitting it to float.


1. Horned Puffin on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horned_puffin
2. Horned Puffin on The IUCN Red List site - https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22694931/132582101

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