In the summer puffins’ bills are a distinctive bright red, blue and yellow, hence their nicknames Sea Parrot, Bottle Nose and Clown of the Ocean. In winter the colourful outer part of the beak is shed, leaving a smaller, duller one behind.
For most of the year, puffins bob about on the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, hundreds of miles from land. They dive down to great depths, using their wings as paddles and their webbed feet as a rudder. Their beaks have backward pointing spines so they can store rows of fish in their mouths without swallowing them. The average catch is 10 but the record is 62. In Spring, puffins return to land to breed, digging holes in the cliff-top turf or refurbishing old rabbit burrows. They use their beaks as picks and their feet as shovels. Their loud growling noises from underground sound like muffled chainsaws. Out at sea they are totally silent.
Puffins have been hunted for food for centuries. In Norway, special puffin dogs dig them out of the ground, and in Iceland and the Faroes they are caught on the wing using a 12-foot (3.7 metre) pole with a net on the end. Once thought to be half-bird, half-fish, Catholics ate them on Fridays and in Lent. On St Kilda they were used to flavour porridge. However, puffins are not endangered – there are 10 million Atlantic puffins in Iceland alone.
Puffins usually mate for life, the males give the females presents of grass or feathers and they produce one egg a year between them.
Where the small burn spreads into the sea loch, I found the mad, clever, clown’s beak of a puffin.
There are four species in the genus Fratercula (‘little brother’): the Atlantic puffin, the Horned puffin, the Tufted puffin and the Rhinoceros Auklet.
Puffins are a kind of auk. The smallest auk is the Least Auklet - the male has testicles that are larger than its brain.
Baby puffins are called 'pufflings'.