Like Common Murres and Pigeon Guillemots, the Horned Puffin is an auk, a type of bird characterized by short wings, thick beaks with excellent swimming and diving abilities. On land, auks walk in an upright, often clumsy posture with some species resembling penguins although they are not related. The Horned Puffin is approximately the same size as a common pigeon with a black body, white cheeks and a white chest. The name is derived from the black horn-like lines which run upward and from the back of each eye. Perhaps their most compelling physical trait is their beak, which is bright orange with a red tip and has earned them the nickname “sea parrot.” The bird has bright orange feet and legs.
Like other auks, Horned Puffins are a wing-propelled predator. Their swimming technique is often described as “flying underwater” as they can swiftly chase down fish and squid, reaching speeds up to 40 mph (64.3 km/h) and depths of 80 feet (24 m). Although they can also take flight, Horned Puffins must pump their wings very hard to stay aloft and are clearly more at home on the water.
This bird is closely related to and resembles the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica).
The Horned Puffin spends most of its life on the open sea but can be found along the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska, nesting in large colonies on islands close to shore. They will migrate during the winter months and can sometimes be found as far south as California waters.
Horned Puffins are protected in Alaska where their populations seem to be stable. This is not true in the lower forty-eight states and British Columbia where numbers have declined as a result of by catch in gillnets used in coastal waters, pressures of pollution (especially oil spills), and decreasing availability of fish due to climate change. Encroachment and disturbance of nesting sites continues to be a problem in Alaska as does predation by Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Red Fox, North American River Otters — all of which prey on adult birds.