October 12, 2018
Atlantic puffins spend most of their life at sea, floating in the open ocean. When it’s time to lay eggs, the birds gather in colonies on seaside cliffs, burrowing 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. But then the young bird must fend for itself. It leaves the nest and flies out to sea. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen.
But on Heimaey, an island off the southern coast of Iceland, human-made hazards have disrupted the chicks’ trek from nest to ocean, threatening the lives of many birds. Luckily, they are getting help from the children of Heimaey.
Heimaey is a small island of just 4,200 people. But with its neighboring islands, it hosts the world’s largest puffin colony. Each spring, more than 1.5 million puffins go to the islands to breed . Around August, puffin chicks make their way to the ocean. That’s when the trouble begins.
Instinct tells pufflings to leave the nest at night and 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 embark on their own middle-of-the-night adventure. They band together to form search parties and take to the streets of Heimaey 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. Over the years, kids have even developed a gentle technique. “You do not throw them like a baseball,” Eldur says. “You hold them in both hands, crouch down, and put them in between your legs. Then you stand up, extend your arms in front of you and let go, so the bird gets as much momentum as it can.”
Puffins in Peril
Before releasing rescued pufflings, their rescuers make a pit stop at the local aquarium, where the birds are weighed and tagged, for tracking purposes. This helps scientists learn more about puffins.
In 2005, puffin colonies around the world went into decline. Atlantic puffins are now listed as a vulnerable species, meaning they are likely to become endangered. The main reason is that the ocean’s supply of small fish is dwindling. The change is tied to overfishing and rising ocean temperatures. Puffins rely on the fish for food.
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 puffin chicks now weigh less than in previous years. That means they have a lower chance of survival.
Scientists worry puffins will die out entirely if ocean temperatures continue to rise. But the kids of Heimaey inspire Stephen Kress. He is the director of Audubon’s Project Puffin, a conservation effort in the United States. “The message is that people can make a difference,” he says. “Each time these kids help a bird get back to the ocean, they show us that.”
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