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There ain’t nuffin like a puffin!  Puffins are one of our strangest looking birds. If they are  a creation of intelligent design, then we must allow God a sense of humour.  And if not, then perhaps humour is an evolutionary prerogative. 

 

Black and white like miniature penguins with the mournful white face of a clown, their  ridiculously large arrowhead of a bill is painted in rainbow stripes while their eyes are outlined in black and yellow to match the triangular configuration of the bill.  Puffins have a curiously human upright posture, like a red-nosed butler in a frock coat.  Their gait is a Chaplinesque waddle minus the stick; their voice a scolding agricultural ‘arrrh’. 

 

Puffins nest in the grass at the top of a cliff and lay their single, white, round egg at the end of a long burrow which they excavate by hacking at the ground with their bill and scraping away the earth with razor sharp claws.  Incubation lasts about six weeks and the chick is tended in the burrow for another six weeks.  The female usually stays in the burrow while the male flies off to return with its bill full of sand eels arranged crosswise and parallel with heads protruding from one side tails from the other. The bill may appear ridiculous but it is superbly adapted to collect and carry fish.  It contains hooks on the inside which retains the fish it has already caught while catching another and the fleshy yellow elastic hinge at the corners of the mouth allows even closure and a tight grip on its slippery catch from base to apex.    

 

The chicks are safe underground in the burrows as long as there are no rats at the nest site, but after six weeks, the parents leave, and the chicks have to make the perilous nocturnal journey to the edge of the cliff where they launch themselves improbably out and down on to the sea.  It is during this journey that they are at most risk from early rising skuas and black backed gulls.   

 

A Puffin’s stubby wings which whirr inefficiently like a bumble bee’s in flight, are  magnificent oars underwater, where their dual propulsion and streamlined shape make them efficient hunters of sand eels, sprats and whiting.  This is their element. 

 

But Puffins are under threat.  There are no Puffins left on Lundy or Puffin Island in the Bristol Channel and few on Skomer in Pembrokeshire, where their decline is blamed on a scarcity of sand eels. But they are still present in large numbers on St Kilda, that remote outpost of the British Isles 40 miles out in the Atlantic, where they once formed the mainstay of the diet for the people who lived there.  And tens of thousands of them nest each year on the Farne Islands. 

 

Although I might grumble at how each year, visitors to the Inner Farne are crowded into an ever more restricted viewing area,  this is helping to conserve the numbers and well, if it allows more people to marvel at this strangest of birds, then it’s worth it.  There is nuffin, absolutely nuffin like a puffin. 

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