At Georgia Aquarium’s new puffin exhibit (located in the Cold Water
Quest gallery) you can see two species of puffins (horned and tufted), as well
as pigeon guillemots and common murres — all seabirds hailing from the chilly North
Pacific. The exhibit features intricate rockwork resembling the birds’ native
to the Aquarium right away to see the birds in person? Check out these cuties
First, a stop in Alaska
Thanks to a partnership with Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) in Seward,
Alaska, Georgia Aquarium was able to bring North Pacific seabirds to Atlanta. Before
their southward journey, these birds were in the excellent care of ASLC.
It's all in the (alcid) family
Puffins, murres and guillemots are members of the alcid family. Alcids are pelagic — spending most of their time in open water, far from shore. Small, powerful wings and legs set far back on the body make them good swimmers and divers. Although they’re graceful in the water, they are a bit clumsy on land.
These birds are sometimes confused for penguins, but there’s no relation. Unlike penguins, alcids can fly and live mainly in the Northern Hemisphere. Penguins, on the other hand, live a world away in the Southern Hemisphere. During breeding season, alcids can be found along rocky coasts, steep cliffs and offshore islands. Breeding colonies form along these cliffs and coasts with multiple species of birds mixing to form large colonies.
The horned puffin
This bird’s large, colorful bill is present only during mating season. Afterward, it undergoes its annual molt, during which the outer part of the bill is shed and the smaller, duller true bill is exposed. The horned puffin’s post breeding-season molt also affects its face patch. The white patch around the puffin’s eyes turns grey, and the fleshy horns above each eye disappear.
The horned puffin captures its prey by surface diving, and it’s a pretty good diver: It may dive up to 80 feet deep to snag a meal. Somehow this little bird manages to carry as many as 60 small fish at a time crosswise in its bill to bring back to its chick (each pair of puffins produces only one egg per season).
The tufted puffin
Tufted puffins are found in the Northern Pacific. Their ranges include Southern California to Alaska and Northwest Asia to the coast of Japan. This is the largest of the puffin species, about the size of a crow, and is instantly recognizable during breeding season. Long, yellowish tufts of feathers above and behind the eye and a large, bright orange (or reddish) bill distinguish this species from other puffins. After breeding season these birds molt their tufts and bill plates.
Like its horned counterpart, it dives for food and is a master at cramming small fish in its bill to bring back to its chick.
Speaking of puffin chicks…
what a puffin hatchling, aka puffling, looks like. They grow to full size in
about six weeks. Until then, they stay in their burrow awaiting meal deliveries
from mom and dad.
The common murre
widely throughout the Northern Pacific, and here and there in the Northern
Atlantic, common murres use their strong wings to “fly” under water. Their
ability to stay underwater for up to a minute and dive as far as 150 feet in pursuit of prey
means these birds are perfectly adapted for life in the water. Breeding
colonies are typically so dense that as many as 20 pairs may be found in an
area of only 10 square feet.
Each pair produces
one pear-shaped egg, which is laid directly on the ground. The egg’s shape keeps
it from rolling off the edge of the cliff. Both parents take turns incubating
the egg for 28 to 34 days. Once the egg
has hatched, it is another 18 to 25 days before the chick is ready to flutter
down to the sea, where it will be fed by its parents until it is ready to fly.
The pigeon guillemot
Even though these birds look like pigeons,
except for their red legs and feet, they live far from the city. Pigeon
guillemots live in the North Pacific, from Russia’s Kuril
Islands to Eastern Siberia and from Western Alaska to Southern California. These
birds also use their wings for propulsion while swimming. However, unlike other
alcids, they also use their feet for swimming.
Like other members
of the alcid family, these birds breed on rocky
cliffs and islands. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the hatchlings. The oldest
recorded pigeon guillemot was at least 15 years old.