1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Puffin

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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, pope, 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 Alcidae, to which family it belongs. 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 held of the Crown at a yearly rent of 300 puffins[1] 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 Stilly,” 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 plentiful 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 Alcidae 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 themselves 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 expression, 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. 354) stated that puffins “are said to change their bills annually.” The remark seems to have been 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 show (Bull. Soc. Zool. France, ii. 377-399)[2] 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. 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 Ceratorhina and Simorhynachus inhabiting the same waters. The name puffin has also been given in books to one of the shearwaters which belong to the sub-family Procellariina of the Petrels (q.v.), and its latinized form Puffinus is still used in that sense in scientific nomenclature. This fact seems to have arisen from a mistake of Ray'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 as the remarks inserted in Willughby's Ornithologia (p. 251) prove; for the specimens described by Ray were as clearly shearwaters as Gesner's were puffins.


  1. There cannot be much doubt that the name puffin given to these young birds, salted and dried, was applied on account of their downy clothing, for an English informant of Gesner's described one to him (Hist. avium, p. 110) as wanting true feathers, and being covered only with a sort of woolly black plumage. It is right, however, to state that Caius expressly declares (Rarior. animal. libellus, fol. 21) that the name is derived “a naturali voce pupin.” Skeat states that the word is a diminutive, which favours the view that it was originally used as a name for these young birds. The parents were probably known by one or other of their many local appellations.
  2. See Zoologist for 1878, pp. 233-240.