Did you know that Iceland has 8 to 10 million puffins, more than 60% of the world’s Atlantic puffin population? Due to their appearance, puffins have been nicknamed “clown of the sea” and “sea parrot.” They are black and white like penguins but have colorful beaks and orange legs. The beak will fade to gray during the winter while out at sea. Today most people go ‘puffin hunting´ to observe and photograph these adorable seabirds, but they were an essential resource for Icelanders living in the harsh North Atlantic climate. Puffins were caught for the meat, their eggs were collected for food, and their feathers were used for bedding.
By 1900, the largest puffin colony in the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) was decimated by overhunting and it took hunting bans to allow the puffin population to recover. Iceland and the Faroe Islands are the only countries still allowing puffin hunting, but it is maintained at a sustainable level. However, other animals such as rats, Arctic foxes and rabbits as well as also endanger puffin populations, as does overfishing and ocean pollution, such as oil spills. Since 2000, the Atlantic puffin has been considered a “vulnerable” species.
In 2019, an experiment to attract puffins to the island of Hrísey in Eyjafjörður bay in North Iceland began. One hundred fifty plastic puffin decoys were placed in three locations around the island, hoping puffins and then puffin-loving tourists would come to Hrísey. It will take several years to see if this plan succeeds. Similar projects have been successful in the United States and Norway, and it is hoped to be the same here.
The Atlantic puffin spends most of its life at sea resting on waves and is spread out widely across the North Atlantic, with more than one square kilometer for each bird. Puffins return to land in the early spring, generally seen in Iceland from April until September, returning to breed and raise their young. They are monogamous and mate for life. Females produce a single egg and the chick is known as a puffling.
Puffins love to build their nests called burrows on coastal cliff tops in turf or soil. The breeding pair return to the same burrow every year, with the male and female taking turns to incubate the egg. About six weeks after hatching, the puffling is fully developed and can care for itself. They leave the burrow and stay at sea for 3-5 years, learning to survive.
Here are a few more facts about these fascinating birds: their favorite food is herring and sand eels; they are excellent swimmers and can dive up to 60 meters (almost 200 feet); they can flap their wings 400 beats per minute which allows them to fly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour (80 km per hour). Puffins are long-lived for a bird, with an average lifespan of 20 -25 years, while one in the Westman Islands lived to be 38 years old.
Puffins are very smart creatures. A puffin was observed and recorded on the island of Grimsey using a stick to scratch itself. Fewer than 1% of animal species use tools and this was the first reported use of a tool by a seabird. Finally, while the puffin is the official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, it is not in Iceland. The national bird of Iceland is the Gyrfalcon.
The question most people have about puffins is, “Where can I go to see these delightful birds?” The best time to see puffins in Iceland is between May and August and there are many places around the country where they can be found. The Icelandic word for puffin is lundi.
Here are a few places you are most likely to view puffin colonies:
The largest colony of puffins lives in Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands). It is here in Vestmannaeyjar where they have the tradition of puffin rescue. In August and early September, as the young pufflings are left by their parents and must fend for themselves, they sometimes have trouble. They get distracted by the city lights and instead of flying from the cliffs to the ocean, the pufflings wind up in the streets or people’s gardens. To help them survive, local children patrol their neighborhoods and residents drive around searching for these lost pufflings. They are put into a box that night, weighed and measured the next day, and then set free during daylight.*
Another great place to see puffins is Látrabjarg, in the Westfjords. It is the largest seabird cliff in Iceland and one of the biggest in Europe. Millions of birds nest in this area, including the Atlantic puffin. There are no foxes in Látrabjarg, so the birds are fearless and provide photographers with incredible close-up opportunities. For this reason, Látrabjarg is the most visited tourist area in the Westfjords. In 2021, this area was declared to be protected.
In the south coast area of Iceland, there are two notable areas for puffin watching: the Dyrhólaey stone arch near Vík and the Ingólfshöfði Nature Reserve. This isolated headland not only shelters thousands of seabirds but also sheltered Iceland’s first settlers. Ingólfur Arnarson (IR # 135531) and his family spent their first winter here in the years 874 and 875. Ingólfshöfði means ‘Ingólfur’s Cape.’
Enjoy puffin watching, but please do so from a safe distance. You need to be cautious no matter where you go to see puffins. Puffin burrows are near the edge of cliffs, so the ground can be precarious and easily collapse under your feet. It is also essential that humans not disturb puffins as they breed in solitude and may be scared off from feeding their young. In turn, puffins benefit people by helping local economies through tourism and acting as indicators of ocean health, especially overfishing.
* There is a book about the puffin rescue featured in Our Second Annual Book Flood called Lundi the Lost Puffin by Eric Newman.