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Published: 13 November 2021

By Andy Ross

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This piece for Flight!, the lockdown project about migration, is about everyone's favourite birds: puffins. 

The Puffin – guardian of joy


Everybody loves puffins. Who could not? Puffins are delightful. Cute as buttons. With an endearing waddle, puffin couples meet to kiss each other with oversized and brightly coloured bills. They pair up to raise impossibly fluffy chicks which, to add yet more wonder to an already cute species, are called “pufflings”. To fly, they begin by hurling themselves off cliff faces, frantically flutter their wings, and zoom by rather like giant colourful bumblebees. They land quickly with outstretched legs, scuttling indoors as fast as possible; when you are only a foot or so tall, almost everything, after all, is a potential threat.  Not for nothing are puffins known in many languages as “clowns of the sea”. They are fabulously comical. A flock of puffins, standing to attention on guard beside their cliffside burrows, surrounded by rabbits and sea pinks, is a sight to gladden every heart.


But that is in the Shetland summer.


After a frantic season of raising young and gorging on sand eels, each and every puffin disappears from Shetland’s shores.  For ages we did not know where they went. It was only a few years ago that scientists discovered the little birds moved far out to sea and spent the whole winter in open ocean. There they eat and sleep, not generally setting foot on land again until the following breeding season. They lose their bright colours and settle for a rather more austere grey and black. To us land-lubbers the season of celebration seems over.


It is puzzling for we who are land-tied. Why spend time at sea when clearly it is earth to which all birds belong? Puffins may see things differently, for the sea is their real home; the land, a necessary nuisance. The deep ocean is where they truly fly, underwater, trailing bubbles as they skim high mountain tops and soar over chasms. Here they are safe and secure. How wonderful to be lulled by endlessly restless waves; to watch, wide-eyed, wild winter weather, calmed in the knowledge that a constant stream of food is served upon never-ending upwellings. How comforting to know that for eight months of each year the sea will support and hold and nourish and keep. And at the end of it all, that the ocean will enclose and embrace forever.


Perhaps puffins feel the same on their return to the ocean as we do when we walk through our front doors. Maybe their time on land is like our journeying to a far-away place. We love the adventure and discovery, but home is always where our hearts live. Puffins seem joyful. Perhaps it is because they have learned that lesson well.