1902 Encyclopedia > Puffin


PUFFIN, the common English name of a sea-bird, the Fratercula arctica of most ornithologists, known however on various parts of the British coasts as the Bottlenose, Coulterneb, Bope, Sea-Parrot, and Tammy-Norie, to say nothing of other still more local designations, some (as Marrott and Willock) shared also with allied species of Alcidx, to which Family it has, until very lately, been invariably deemed to belong. Of old time Puffins were a valuable commodity to the owners of their breeding-places, for the young were taken from the holes in which they were hatched, and "being exceeding fat," as Carew wrote in 1602 (Survey of Cornwall, fol. 35), were "kept salted, and reputed for fish, as coming neerest thereto in their taste." In 1345, according to a document from which an extract is given in Heath's Islands of Scilly (p. 190), those islands were h Id of the crown at a yearly rent of 300 Puffins or 6s. 8d., being one-sixth of their estimated annual value. A few years later (1484), either through the birds having grown scarcer or money cheaper, only 50 Puffins are said (op. cit., p. 196) to have been demanded. It is stated by both Gesner and Caius that they were allowed to be eaten in Lent. Ligon, who in 1673 published a History of the Island of Barbadoes, speaks (p. 37) of the ill taste of Puffins "which we have from the isles of Scilly," and adds "this kind of food is only for servants." Puffins used to resort in vast numbers to certain stations on the coast, and are still jflentiful on some, reaching them in spring with remarkable punctuality on a certain day, which naturally varies with the locality, and after passing the summer there, leaving their homes with similar precision. They differ from most other Alcidx in laying their single egg (which is white with a few grey markings when first produced, but speedily begrimed by the soil) in a shallow burrow, which they either dig for them-selves or appropriate from a rabbit, for on most of their haunts rabbits have been introduced. Their plumage is of a glossy black above—the cheeks grey, encircled by a black band—and pure white beneath; their feet are of a bright reddish orange, but the most remarkable feature of these birds, and one that gives them a very comical ex-pression, is their huge bill. This is very deep and laterally flattened, so as indeed to resemble a coulter, as one of the bird's common names expresses ; but moreover it is parti-coloured—blue, yellow, and red—curiously grooved and still more curiously embossed in places, that is to say during the breeding-season, when the birds are most frequently seen. But it had long been known to some observers that such Puffins as occasionally occur in winter (most often washed up on the shore and dead) presented a beak very different in shape and size, and to account for the difference was a standing puzzle. Many years ago Bingley (North Wales, i. p. 354) stated that Puffins "are said to change their bills annually." The remark seems to have beerr generally overlooked; but it has proved to be very near the truth, for after investigations carefully pursued during some years by Dr Bureau of Nantes he was in 1877 enabled to shew (Bull. Soc. Zool. France, ii. pp. 377-399) that the Puffin's bill undergoes what may be called an annual moult, some of its most remarkable appendages, as well as certain horny outgrowths above and beneath the eyes, dropping off at the end of the breeding-season, and being reproduced the following year. Not long after the same naturalist announced (op. cit., iv. pp. 1-68) that he had followed the similar changes which he found to take place, not only in other species of Puffins, as the Fratercula corniculata and F. cirrhata of the Northern Pacific, but in several birds of the kindred genera Cera-torhina and Simorhynchus inhabiting the same waters, and consequently proposed to regard all of them as forming a Family distinct from the Alcidx—a view which has since found favour with Dr Dybowski (op. cit., vii. pp. 270-300 and viii. pp. 348-350), though there is apparently insufficient reason for accepting it.

The name Puffin has also been given in books to one of the Shearwaters, and its Latinized form Puffinus is still used in that sense in scientific nomenclature. This
fact seems to have arisen from a mistake of Bay's, who, seeing in Tradescant's Museum and that of the Royal Society some young Shearwaters from the Isle of Man, prepared in like manner to young Puffins, thought they were the birds mentioned by Gesner (loc. cit.), as the remarks inserted in Willughby's Omithologia (p. 251) prove ; for the specimens described by Ray were as clearly Shearwaters as Gesner's were Puffins. (A. N.)

The above article was written by: Alfred Newton, F.R.S., Professor of Zoology, University of Cambridge.

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