10 Facts About Puffins

iStock/pulpitis
iStock/pulpitis

Puffins are widely regarded as the cutest birds on Earth. With their black and white plumage and large orange beaks, Atlantic puffins and their cousins may look like a clownish cross between a duck and penguin, but these birds are their own cool kind. Read on for more about the birds' diet, their chicks—called pufflings!—and habitat.

1. The name puffin refers to the young birds' roly-poly look.

Puffins are called several names based on their appearance. Puffin is thought to come from the word puff, meaning swollen, because the fluffy pufflings do appear rather round. Puffins have also been referred to as the clowns of the ocean or sea parrots thanks to their amusing expression and colorful beak. The Atlantic puffin’s Latin name, Fratercula arctica, translates to “little brother of the north,” which may allude to the Atlantic puffin’s plumage resembling a friar’s robe.

2. There's more than one kind of puffin.

There are four species of puffin: Atlantic puffin, horned puffin, tufted puffin, and rhinoceros auklet. The first three belong to the genus Fratercula and live in the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The rhinoceros auklet, in the genus Cerorhinca, is somewhat different in its appearance but still qualifies as a puffin, anatomically speaking. The auklets live along the western coast of North America from Alaska to central California.

3. Puffins' beaks change color.

Puffins’ beaks are known for their technicolor orange hue, but just before winter the birds shed the outer layer of their bills, leaving them smaller and duller. When spring arrives, though, their beaks return to their bright form, just in time for mating season.

4. Unlike penguins, puffins can fly.

Puffins might resemble the black and white Antarctic birds, but they are definitely not flightless. Despite their stout bodies and short wings, puffins can fly as fast as 55 mph, but not without some serious effort: They have to flap their wings 300 to 400 times per minute to stay aloft.

5. Puffins lay one egg a year.

Atlantic puffin with silver fish in its beak
iStock/CreativeNature_nl

Puffins have just one puffling each year, and they usually have one partner for their lifetime. Puffins raise their single chick during the warmer months of spring and summer and generally return to their same burrows with the same mate the following spring.

6. Pufflings are kind of high-maintenance.

Being a parent to a puffling is very demanding job. Mother and father puffins have to fly long distances to hunt food in the open ocean and then return to their chick with mouthfuls of fish. Parents can supply their young with fish more than 100 times a day.

7. Special tongues help puffins catch and hold fish.

Puffins can grab around 10 small fish—like sand eels, one of their favorite foods—in their beaks per dive. That rare ability is thanks to their specialized tongues and upper palates. A puffin's tongue ends in a coarse section that can hold on to a fish and simultaneously push it against a spiky patch in the bird's mouth, where the prey stays put as the puffin continues hunting. One puffin in Britain set a record for carrying 62 fish in its beak at one time.

8. Puffins dig holes instead of building nests.

Atlantic puffin in its nest burrow
iStock/Peter Llewellyn

Puffins don’t construct the typical cup-shaped nest to raise their puffling. Instead, they burrow into the ground, digging to a depth of about 3 feet with their beaks and feet. They will also find protected spots between rocks on steep cliffs, which protect young birds from predators.

9. Puffins can live more than 20 years.

Puffins lead long lives for birds—often more than two decades. The oldest known puffin lived to be 36. The species’ maximum age is difficult to gauge because dated leg bands often corrode in the puffins’ salty habitat, or become illegible as the puffins nest in rocky environments. In fact, it’s hard to track which puffins were ever banded at all.

10. A puffin patrol helps rescue pufflings in Iceland’s largest puffin colony.

Iceland is home to more than half of the world’s puffin population, and its Vestmannaeyjar archipelago hosts the country’s largest puffin colony. Each April, thousands of birds return from the open ocean to breed. Residents of the main village on Heimaey island, the only inhabited island in the group, have formed a puffin patrol to help rescue pufflings who wander into town and to provide an estimate of the year’s new chicks. In 2016, the last year for which data are readily available, 2639 pufflings were brought into the Vestmannaeyjar Fish and Natural History Museum to be examined and then released.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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