Puffins in Peril

Scientists warn that the seabird’s population is at risk in the U.S.

Jun 05, 2013 | By Kelli Plasket with AP reporting
ROBERT F. BUKATY—AP

An Atlantic puffin flies with a mouthful of fish to feed its chick on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine. Researchers attached a leg band to the seabird for collecting data.

Thousands of puffins—a popular seabird known for its cute appearance—live in Maine and on islands in the Gulf of Maine. But the puffins may be in danger. Last summer, the percentage of laid eggs that successfully produced baby puffins took a dive. Scientists also found a decline in the average body weight of the adult and baby puffins on Machias Seal Island, home to the area’s largest colony. Over the winter, dozens of the seabirds from the region were found dead, likely from starvation.

A pair of puffins stand on Machias Seal Island, home to the Gulf of Maine's largest puffin colony.
BETTY WILEY—GETTY IMAGES
A pair of puffins stand on Machias Seal Island, home to the Gulf of Maine's largest puffin colony.

What’s causing the puffin trouble? Scientists think it may be a shortage of food. With ocean temperatures rising, fish populations have moved around. Normally, puffins’ primary food source is herring, a type of fish. A lack of herring in the area could be causing the problem. Tony Diamond, a professor from the University of New Brunswick who studies puffins on Machias Seal, says the amount of herring in the puffin’s diet has been falling by about 5% a year.

Butterfish from the south have become more abundant in the Gulf of Maine and could be a new food source for birds. But Steve Kress, director of the National Audubon Society’s seabird restoration program, says butterfish may be too big and round for baby puffins to swallow. “We don’t know how the puffin will adapt to these changes—or if they’ll adapt to these conditions,” Kress told the Associated Press.

Protecting Puffins

The Atlantic puffin is a small, waddling seabird with a colorful striped beak and pear-shaped body, earning it the nickname “clown of the sea.” Puffins spend most of their lives at sea. They come ashore to breed each spring and return to the ocean in August. The chicks swim to sea about 40 days after hatching. Puffin populations stretch across the North Atlantic, from Maine to northern Russia.

Maine’s puffin population has been at risk in the past. In the 1800s, they were hunted for their food, eggs and feathers. By 1901, only one pair of puffins remained in the state. Thanks to the help of local lighthouse keepers and seabird restoration programs, the state’s puffin population has been restored to more than 2,000 birds.

Now, the birds in the Gulf are facing a new challenge to their survival—and they aren’t alone. Since 2007, Machias Seal Island’s tern population has almost disappeared. In Iceland, which is home to more than half the world’s puffins, and other places, scientists have also seen puffin population declines.

Scientists aren’t sure what will happen to the Gulf of Maine’s puffins. The birds may move further north. Kress says he hopes the Gulf population will sustain itself but that there’s cause for concern. “You never know what climate change will bring,” Kress said. “Historic fish could move out and more southerly fish could move in, and puffins may adapt to the new fish. Only they will know how the story will unfold.”