Team Puffin

October 19, 2018
BACK TO NATURE Children in Iceland release rescued puffins by tossing them toward the ocean.
ERIC CHRETIEN—GAMMA-RAPHO/GETTY IMAGES

Atlantic puffins spend most of their life at sea. When it’s time to lay eggs, the birds gather on seaside cliffs. They burrow into the ground to build nests. After a puffling, or chick, hatches, it spends six weeks in the nest, feasting on fish supplied by its parents. Then the young bird must fend for itself. It leaves the nest and flies to sea.

PUFFIN FAMILY A puffling (left) with a parent. Young birds don’t have the colorful beak seen on adults.

PETER LLEWELLYN—GETTY IMAGES

But on Heimaey, an island off the coast of Iceland, human-made hazards have disrupted the chicks’ trek to the ocean. Luckily, they’re getting help from the kids of Heimaey.

Kid Helpers

Heimaey is home to just 4,200 people. But each spring, more than 1½ million puffins visit Heimaey and its neighboring islands. They go there to breed. Around August, puffin chicks head for the ocean. That’s when the trouble begins.

Instinct tells pufflings to follow the light of the moon to the sea. But they are confused by Heimaey’s bright lights. Each year, a large number of them end up lost—or worse. Often, stray birds are hit by cars or preyed on by cats.

Enter the Puffling Patrol. Each breeding season, the children of Heimaey band together to form search parties. They take to the streets carrying flashlights and cardboard boxes. (Adults are there to supervise.) “When you see a bird, you try to corner it and herd it into the box,” Eldur Hansen told TIME for Kids. Eldur is 14. He has caught several puffins this way. No one knows exactly when or how the Puffling Patrol got its start. But each year, it rescues thousands of chicks. Kids take rescued birds home. The next morning, they take them to the beach for release.

TAKE OFF! Puffins spend most of their life at sea but come together in large colonies on land to breed.

JEFF J. MITCHELL—GETTY IMAGES

Puffins in Peril

Before releasing the pufflings, kids make a pit stop at the local aquarium. There, the birds are weighed and tagged, for tracking purposes. This helps scientists learn more about puffins.

Atlantic puffins are now listed as a vulnerable species. That means they are likely to become endangered. The main reason is that the ocean’s supply of small fish is shrinking. This is tied to overfishing and rising ocean temperatures. Puffins need the fish for food.

SEA PARROT An adult puffin perches on a cliff in Iceland.

FOTOVOYAGER­/GETTY IMAGES

Erpur Hansen is with the South Iceland Nature Research Center. (He’s also Eldur’s dad.) Hansen says the Puffling Patrol is more important than ever. “We scientists are lucky to be able to partake in the children’s rescues,” he says. Thanks to data gathered with kids’ help, researchers have learned that chicks now weigh less than in previous years. That means they have a lower chance of survival.

Scientists worry puffins will die out if ocean temperatures continue to rise. But the Puffling Patrol inspires Stephen Kress. He’s with Audubon’s Project Puffin. It’s a conservation effort in the United States. “The message is that people can make a difference,” he says.

Assessment: Click here for a printable quiz. Teacher subscribers can find the answer key in this week's Teacher's Guide.