ATLANTIC PUFFINS - A LANDMARK SUCCESS STORY
Many years ago, as part of the National Wildlife Federation’s Family Summit in Maine, I visited a very special place in the annals of avian conservation, Eastern Egg Rock Island. It was here in 1973 that Dr. Stephen W. Kress of the National Audubon Society started the now world-famous “Puffin Project.” Its objective was restoring Atlantic puffins to historic nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine (at the time, Atlantic puffins nested only on Matinicus Island and Machias Seal Island), where they had been wiped out by hunters in the nineteenth century.
Famed Maine naturalist and photographer Allan Cruickshank provides this wonderful description of the Atlantic Puffin: “This clown-like alcid with its dignified upright posture, its trim black and white plumage, its oversized gaily colored red, blue, and yellow bill, and its deliberate rolling pigeon-toed walk is the favorite among many bird-watchers.”
Atlantic puffins have historically lived and nested in the North Atlantic, from New England to Canada, Iceland, and the British Isles. In much of their range, puffin populations are doing quite well. In fact, in many Iceland restaurants, puffin is a featured menu item.
If you’re looking for an introductory bird to get children interested in bird-watching, the puffin is a perfect choice. With their colorful bills and penguin-like bodies, puffins have been dubbed “sea parrots” and “clowns of the oceans.” Plus they use their short, stubby wings like propellers and large, webbed feet as rudders to expertly fly under water—diving to depths of more than two hundred feet, where they catch small fish like herring, capelin, hake, and sand eels. Finally, they use backward-pointing spines on their tongues and roofs of their mouths to catch and hold up to thirty fish at a time.
For the Puffin Project, under Dr. Kress’s watchful eye, Audubon biologists transplanted two-week-old puffins to artificial burrows dug under the Eastern Egg Rock’s granite boulders. They also served as surrogate parents, by regularly delivering small fish—the puffins’ staple diet—to the burrows. A few weeks later, the first brood of Eastern Egg Rock–introduced puffins took to the skies to spend the next two to three years of their lives at sea.
Although previous studies had conclusively shown that puffins always returned to the islands where they hatched, Kress’s researchers had no way of knowing for sure if these transplanted puffins would follow protocol. So during the next few years, they continued to transplant, feed, tag, and release puffins on Eastern Egg Rock.
Now here’s where things really get really interesting: In a precedent-setting move that rocked the birding world, researchers populated Easter Egg Rock with puffin decoys made out of plywood and mounted on boulders along the edge of the shoreline. Their bold ploy worked: In 1977 puffins began returning to the island, often landing next to the wooden decoys and pecking at their hand-painted beaks.
During the intervening years, the Puffin Project has proven so successful that each puffin hatched on Eastern Egg Rock becomes part of the Adopt-a-Puffin Conservation Fund, which supports long-term continuation of puffin research and seabird habitat preservation in the Gulf of Maine.
Photo Caption & Credit: With a mouthful of freshly caught fish, an Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) returns to its nesting site on a remote island in the Gulf of Maine. Photo (c) Randy Rimland/Shutterstock.com.