During a recent trip to Newfoundland in mid-June, my husband and I took a chartered boat to Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Situated south of St. John’s, the islands are home to the largest puffin colony in the western Atlantic.
Puffins, the provincial bird of Newfoundland and Labrador, was smaller than we expected, about 10 inches long. It didn’t take long to understand why such an adorable bird is often called the clown of the ocean or sea parrot.
Their colourful beaks indicated that this was their nesting season. Puffins find their mate at sea, and only spend four to five months each year on land when they make a burrow and raise their little one.
In early May, each mother puffin deposits a single egg at the back of her cozy, three-foot burrow which father puffin prepared, and took care to line with plants, feathers, or seaweed.
After an incubation period of some 45 days, the eggs begin to hatch, which coincided with the timing of our visit!
Parents will spend the next six weeks bringing herring, sprats, sand eels, zooplankton, crustaceans and mollusks back to their tiny offspring. The puffin’s tongue is used to hold the fish against spines in the palate, leaving the bill free to open again to catch more fish. Believe it or not, the fish, which may number up to twelve, are held in the bill with their heads facing in alternate directions!
The chick takes about 49 days to fledge and then leaves the burrow, unaccompanied, and heads out on its own.
Click below to hear the surprising sounds a puffin makes when in its burrow–somewhat like the buzzing of a chainsaw!
Perhaps a typical burrow conversation might go something like this:
“The sea is the most wonderful place in the whole wide world, little one. Soon you will be able to catch delicious meals all on your own. Your wings will grow very strong. Why you’ll be practically flying through the water! Your webbed feet will steer you wherever you want to go. You’ll be able to dive so deep, down 200 feet! It will feel so good!
I don’t want to boast, but we puffins are fast in the air as well. You’ll be able to fly about 88 km/hr (that’s 55 mph). Think of that!
Now, I must warn you to be on high alert if you ever travel as far north as Finland, or the Faroe Islands near Denmark. I’ve read in the Puffin Paper that up there, they hunt our kinsfolk for their feathers, their eggs, and even their meat. It makes me shudder to tell you.
When you become four or five years old, Puffling, it will be time to find a sweetheart and settle down. I’ll never forget the day your father and I pledged our troth by tapping our bills together! I’m sure you will choose wisely. We come from a long line of honourable puffins, and we don’t split up like some of those fickle land birds I’ve heard about. Oh no. And do keep up the ancient tradition of returning to the family home each spring.
I believe Father Puffin has already filled you in on the best feeding places.
After you have raised your first chick, don’t be upset when the colourful outer parts of your bill fall off. The smaller, duller beak keeps you less noticeable to those Great Black-backed Gulls, the enemy of all noble puffins.
And now, dear Puffling, snuggle under mother’s wing while I tell you something very important.
I know that some evening, after your father and I have fallen asleep, you will hear the wonderful call of the sea, and you will leave this burrow and answer it at once. But just remember, we will love you always. Father Puffin and I will look forward to the day when you and your beautiful partner return to these dear, safe islands to raise our grandbaby Puffling.”
Other paintings in this Newfoundland series:
1. Gros Morne
2. Splashing Thru the Crags
3. Magnets of Newfoundland
4. The Old Sentinel (in LANDSCAPES)