What Do Puffins Eat? 20 Favorite Foods in their Diet

Written by Heather Ross
Updated: January 24, 2023
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Key Points:

  • Depending on the time of year, the menu for the puffin will vary based on what type of fish are nearby.
  • The puffin has evolved to have spined tongues and beaks to help keep a firm grasp on food, like slippery fish caught in the ocean.
  • Sadly, due to tourism, environmental issues, other manmade factors, the habitat for this unique avian is shrinking day by day.

Puffins are adorable-looking birds that live in the North Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. With their black and white bodies and distinctive orange beaks, its hard to mistake puffins. Yet, you may be wondering what puffins eat. After all, they often live in harsh environments that lack many of the other food sources other birds enjoy. Let’s dive into how these incredible birds have bodies adapted for hunting underwater!

What Do Puffins Eat?

What Do Puffins Eat
Puffins have bodies adapted to swimming and eat mostly fish like cod, srpat, and herring.

Puffins are carnivores that eat small fish, squids, crustaceans, zooplankton, and mollusks. While it’s believed they are capable of being omnivorous, their primary diet solely consists of meat.  

The foods that puffins like to eat are:

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Regarding some of the bigger fish that puffins will eat, they hunt for small juveniles that are only a few months old. That doesn’t mean they won’t go for a bigger fish that they’ve managed to ensnare in their beak. They need to eat several dozen little fish a day to sustain themselves, and their growing chick needs even more. Chicks are picky and tend to eat small whole fish like herring.

Their diets vary by season and depend on which fish are schooling nearby. A single colony eats 2 tons of fish or more per year.

How Do Puffins Hunt?

Puffins hunt by diving into the water after fish. They spend most of the winter hunting for food and only come home to their cliffs during the summer months for breeding.

Puffins are social creatures, so they hunt together in groups out in the ocean. They’re fast flyers and that helps to propel them when they dive into the water. They can dive 200 feet deep in search of fish, and they can hold their breath up to two minutes at a time while underwater.

Their beaks are perfectly designed for fish as they have spines on their tongue and upper beak that help keep the fish within their grasp. The spines work so well that a puffin can keep fishing after one has been caught so they can bring home multiple fish to their chick.

While they’re hunting, they form a sort of raft to protect themselves from predators by practicing safety in numbers. Sometimes these hunting groups travel miles out into the open ocean in search of their meal. When it comes to the final catch, however, a sole puffin is on its own.

How Do Baby Pufflings Eat?

Baby puffins eat when their parents feed them. Adult puffins hunt for their young and bring the food back to them in their beaks for their babies to eat. Puffin babies are raised once per year and one at a time, so there is no competition between siblings for a little puffin.

What Eats Puffins: Their Main Predators

Puffin vs Penguin - Puffin Eating

Puffins can catch multiple fish at one time thanks to their spiky tongues.

©Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock.com

A Puffin’s predators include mammals on land, birds of prey in the air, and larger fish like sharks in the sea. Let’s look at a few animals that eat puffins:

  • Eagles
  • Hawks
  • Seagulls
  • Skuas
  • Foxes
  • Rats
  • Marine Mammals
  • Sharks

Puffins have a lot of predators, but it could be worse. The predation issue would be a bigger deal if they didn’t live on grassy clifftops. However, the world is still a dangerous place for a puffin even when zooming around in the water. Sharks will take the opportunity to eat a puffin if presented with one.

There are so many things looking to eat puffin eggs that they make a burrow that can be 3 feet deep to hide their eggs in a small cave they’ve also constructed.

The biggest predator to puffins is humans. When puffins live near humans, stray cats and dogs will also make a snack out of puffins and their eggs. Nets meant to catch salmon on fishing boats will accidentally catch puffins.

The puffin’s habitat is also disappearing quickly because of human activities like oil spills, development, and tourism. Overfishing of their fish food sources and the effects of global warming on schooling fish has also caused a decline in their population.

Do Humans Eat Puffins?

Yes, humans eat puffins. They’ve been on the menu in their territory since the dawn of hunting. They are typically hunted in the summer when the puffin colonies have the most tenants.

Because modern human consumption decimated the natural population, they’re no longer a viable food choice for most. Humans eating puffins alone caused a few colonies to go extinct. In the last century or so, conservation efforts focused on the puffin have somewhat stabilized their decline.

You can still get a taste of puffin in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, with tourist restaurants in cities like Reykjavik serving it to customers.

How Many Kinds of Puffins Are There?

Birds that nest on the ground: Atlantic Puffin

Puffings raise their babies, called pufflings, underground. Pufflings are voracious eaters.


There are 4 kinds of puffins:

  1. Rhinoceros Auklet: These birds are found in the arctic circle, in eastern Canada, northern Europe, and as far south as Spain.
  2. Atlantic Puffin: The Atlantic puffin is the most common kind of puffin and the one we think of first. It shares its territory with the Rhinoceros Auklet.
  3. Horned Puffin: These puffins live on the coasts of Japan, Korea, and the west coast of Canada. Instead of making underground nests, these puffins choose rock crevices.
  4. Tufted Puffin: This bird lives in the same area as the horned puffin.

Where Do Puffins Live?

Because puffins are extremely social, they live in huge colonies with upward of 2 million residents on grass-covered clifftops. Puffins are small birds that live in the northernmost reaches of the northern hemisphere as well as along the coasts of the North Atlantic and Northern Pacific.

To keep themselves and their babies safe, puffins will burrow down into cliffs using their beaks and scooping away dirt and rocks with their feet. Most of these burrows are less that four feet in length. The parent puffins build nests within the burrows using feathers and grass to help incubate their young. They actually build areas to be used as toilets to help keep the young extra clean and thus more waterproof.

Are Puffins Penguins?

No, puffins are not penguins despite their similarity in appearance. Puffins are generally much smaller than penguins, and puffins can fly while penguins cannot. Both are expert hunters that search for fish in the open ocean. While puffins and penguins enjoy the same range in climate, penguins live solely in the southern hemisphere while puffins live in the northern hemisphere.

Final Facts About Puffins

Puffins mate for life and a pair will only rear one egg per year. They can live to be about 20 years old. When puffins fly, they can fly 50 miles per hour while beating their wings up to 400 times per minute. Even though they’re considered smaller birds, their wingspan can be up to 2 feet in length.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Heather Ross is a secondary English teacher and mother of 2 humans, 2 tuxedo cats, and a golden doodle. In between taking the kids to soccer practice and grading papers, she enjoys reading and writing about all the animals!

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