Puffins are fun, attractive birds, but they can be incredibly elusive for birders who hope to add them to a life list. Knowing where to find these small auks at different times of year can help birders see them in the wild, and captive puffins are also great for intimate observation.
There are three widely known puffin species – the Atlantic puffin, horned puffin and tufted puffin – and while none of them are threatened or endangered, they can be difficult to see in the wild (Note: The rhinoceros auklet is genetically a puffin, but is more frequently classified with auks). These are pelagic birds and spend much of their lives far out to sea, but during the breeding season they establish colonies on rocky cliffs, offshore islands and similar habitats that provide sufficient space for nests and burrows with convenient access to good fishing. Visiting those breeding areas is tricky, however, and should be done only in areas authorized for wildlife viewing and without endangering or stressing the nesting birds or their broods. Puffins are exclusively found in the Northern Hemisphere, but it's a big hemisphere so where, exactly, can puffins be found?
Where to See Wild Puffins
All puffin species have large ranges and can be very widespread within that range. During the breeding season, these birds are concentrated in nesting colonies, but during the non-breeding season, they can be far flung across the oceans. Taking pelagic birding trips or excursions to nesting colonies at the right time of year are a birder's best bet for seeing puffins.
- Atlantic Puffin: The most familiar of the puffins, the Atlantic puffin or "parrot of the sea" breeds along the rocky coasts of New England, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Russia. In winter, these birds stretch their range as far south as the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa into the Mediterranean Sea, and in North America may be seen as far south as off the coast of Virginia or North Carolina.
- Horned Puffin: This puffin has the smallest range of the three puffin species, but is still spread across two continents. During the breeding season, horned puffins are found along coasts in the northern Pacific Ocean, from Alaska and northern British Columbia through the Aleutian Islands and into eastern Russia. In winter, these seabirds spread out to include offshore regions as far south as California and northern Baja to eastern Russia.
- Tufted Puffin: These puffins are easily recognized by their long plumes during the breeding season, when they can be seen along rocky coasts and barren islands in the north Pacific from British Columbia and Alaska as far south as Washington, Oregon and northern California, as well as the island of Hokkaido in Japan. In winter, the tufted puffin's non-breeding range goes further south along Japan, southeastern Russia and North Korea, as well as further south along the California coast.
Puffins in Captivity
Because puffins are seabirds and can be difficult to find when they are outside their nesting colonies, it can be easier to find them in captivity. While a captive bird does not count on a life list, seeing puffins in zoos, aquariums and similar facilities can provide wonderful opportunities to observe these birds at close range without the time, expense and uncertainty of trying to find wild puffins.
Captive puffins are part of zoo and aquarium exhibits at many attractions around the world, both inside and outside their typical ranges. These seabirds with their gaudy bills, pudgy bodies and comical expressions are popular residents of marine parks as well. While not every facility will include a puffin exhibit and different puffin species are found in different parks, exceptional facilities that are home to puffins include:
- Alaska SeaLife Centre (Seward, Alaska)
- Aquarium of the Pacific (Long Beach, California)
- Central Park Zoo (New York, New York)
- Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, California)
- National Aquarium (Baltimore, Maryland)
- North Carolina Zoo (Asheboro, North Carolina)
- Oregon Coast Aquarium (Newport, Oregon)
- Point Defiance Zoo (Tacoma, Washington)
- Rotterdam Zoo (Rotterdam, The Netherlands)
- Saint Louis Zoo (St. Louis, Missouri)
- SeaWorld San Diego (San Diego, California)
- Ueno Zoo (Tokyo, Japan)
These are just a few zoos and aquariums with well known, attractive puffin exhibits; many other zoos and aquariums worldwide are also home to these popular birds. Facilities within the birds' natural ranges are more likely to feature puffins in greater numbers, but they are easily found at zoos and aquariums far from the coasts and rocky islands where puffins roam free. Whether in the wild or in captivity, it is always fun to watch these fascinating birds!
Photo – Horned Puffin © Josh Keaton NOAA/NMFS/AKRO/SFD