Puffbirds are exclusively arboreal when foraging. While the majority inhabit lowland humid forest, they are not deep-forest species. Most are apparently birds of forest edge, tree-fall gaps, streamsides, lakesides, and clearings, where horizontal perches are abundant and tangled vines tumble from the canopy to the lower strata. However, this conclusion might sometimes result from observational bias: it is possible that species, particularly those generally confined to the canopy, are more difficult to find in continuous forest than at gaps or streams, where a better view is afforded of the forest's upper levels. Some of these species might range largely undetected across forest canopies.

Several species of puffbird have adapted to semi-arid habitat or open woodland. A few more occupy foothill and submontane forest in the Andes. Most of these reach only the 3,280-ft (1,000-m) contour, but the black-streaked puffbird (Malacoptila fulvogularis) has been recorded up to 7,550 ft (2,300 m), and the white-faced nunbird (Hapaloptila castanea) to 9,500 ft (2,900 m). Habitat choice depends on a complex interaction of environmental factors, including competition with related and unrelated birds. For example, the rufous-capped nunlet (Nonnula ruficapilla) is confined to bamboo or riverine regrowth in some areas, but is much more general in its habitat selection in others.

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