Birds - Puffin
( Originally Published 1904 )
Called also : SEA PARROT; COULTERNEB; MASKING PUFFIN
Male and Female—Upper parts blackish; browner on the head and front of neck. Sides of the head and throat white; some-times grayish. Nape of neck has narrow grayish collar. Breast and underneath white. Feet less broadly webbed than a loon's. Bill heavy and resembling a parrot's. In nesting season bill assumes odd shapes, showing ridges and furrows, an outgrowth of soft parts that have hardened and taken on bright tints. A horny spine over eye. Colored rosette at corner of mouth.
Range—Coasts and islands of the North Atlantic, nesting on the North American coast from the Bay of Fundy northward. South in winter to Long Island, and casually beyond.
Few Americans have seen this curious-looking bird outside the glass cases of museums; nevertheless numbers of them straggle down the Atlantic coast as far as Long Island every winter, from the countless myriads that nest in the rocky cliffs around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy. Unlike either grebes or loons, puffins are gregarious, especially at the nesting season. In April great numbers begin to assemble in localities to which they return year after year, and select crevices in the rocks or bur-row deep holes like a rabbit, to receive the solitary egg that is the object of so much solicitude two months later. Both male and female work at excavating the tunnel and at feeding their one offspring, which has an appetite for fish and other sea-food large enough for a more numerous family. By the end of August the entire colony breaks up and follows the exodus of fish, completely deserting their nesting grounds, where any young ones that may be hatched late are left to be preyed upon by hawks and ravens. " Notwithstanding this apparent neglect of their young at this time, when every other instinct is merged in the desire and necessity of migration," wrote Nuttall, "no bird is more attentive to them in general, since they will suffer themselves to be taken by the hand and use every endeavor to save and screen their young, biting not only their antagonist, but, when laid hold of by the wings, inflicting bites on themselves, as if actuated by the agonies of despair; and when released, instead of flying away, they hurry again into the burrow." A hand thrust in after one may drag the angry parent, that has fastened its beak upon a finger, to the mouth of the tunnel; but a certain fisherman off the coast of Nova Scotia, who lost a piece of solid flesh in this experiment, now gives advice freely against it.
The beak that is able to inflict so serious an injury is this bird's chief characteristic. It looks as if it had been bought at a toyshop for some reveller in masquerade; but the puffin wears it only when engaged in the most serious business of life, for it is the wedding garment donned by both contracting parties. It is about as long as the head, as high as it is long, having flat sides that show numerous ridges or furrows from the fact that each represents new growth of soft matter that finally hardens into horn as the nesting season approaches, only to disappear bit by bit until nine pieces have been moulted or shed, very much as a deer casts its antlers. The white pelican drops its "centre-board" in a similar manner. In the puffins there is also a moult of the excrescenses upon the eyelids, and a shrivelling of the colored rosette at the corner of the mouth, peculiarities first scientifically noted by L. Bereau about twenty years ago. The change of plumage after moult is scarcely perceptible.
On land the bird walks upright, awkwardly shuffling along on the full length of its legs and feet. It is an accomplished swimmer and diver, like the grebes and loons, although, unlike them, it uses its wings under water. When a strong gale is blowing off the coast, the puffins seek shelter in the crevices of the rocks or their tunnels in the sand; but some that were over-taken by it on the open sea, unable to weather it, are sometimes found washed ashore dead after a violent storm. Mr. Brewster, who made a special study of these birds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, writes: "The first report of our guns brought dozens tumbling from their nests. Their manner of descending from the higher portions of the cliff was peculiar. Launching into the air with heads depressed and wings held stiffly at a sharp angle above their backs, they would shoot down like meteors, checking their speed by an upward turn just before reaching the water. In a few minutes scores had collected about us. They were perfectly silent and very tame, passing and repassing over and by us, often coming within ten or fifteen yards. On such occasions their flight has a curious resemblance to that of a woodcock, but when coming in from the fishing grounds they skim close to the waves and the wings are moved more in the manner of those of a duck."