Poor Puffins

Polar bears have enough people advocating for them and working to save them from the effects of global warming, so how about some sympathy for puffins?

A warmer world threatens polar bears because it melts the arctic sea ice they use as a hunting platform. It threatens puffins—the seabirds whose scientific name, Fratercula arctica, means “little brother of the north,” because their black and white plumage are reminiscent of a friar’s robes—because it alters o cean currents and salinity in a way that can decrease the plankton and fish that puffins eat. Such as:

    • On Iceland’s western coast, ocean temperatures have risen 3.6°F in the last two decades, and as a result one of the puffins’ favorite fish dinners—sand lance—have disappeared. Replacing them are less nutritious fish.

    • The absence of sand lance has also led to widespread starvation of chicks and breeding failures among puffins on Britain’s Shetland Islands. The situation is made worse by the kudzu-like growth of the tree mallow (Lavatera arborea), a plant native to the Mediterranean region that has made itself at home up north thanks to global warming and that has overgrown puffin nesting habitat.

    • On Norway’s Rost Island, where puffins typically feed on small herring, the fish have followed the cold-water plankton farther north. “Herring have now moved beyond the feeding range of puffins, resulting in the death of most nestlings,” the National Audubon Society reports. “The timing of puffin breeding is [also] being influenced by climate change and food may not be available when needed by the puffin chicks.”

This is all that much sadder because of the Herculean efforts to save one particular colony of puffins, those on Seal Island, 18 miles off the coast of Rockland, Maine. Puffins there had been almost completely wiped out by centuries of hunting (for their eggs, meat and feathers). But 35 years ago the Audubon Society started Project Puffin, in which biologist Stephen Kress and colleagues hand-carried nearly 2,000 puffin chicks from Newfoundland, where puffins are abundant, to Seal Island by plane, truck, and boat. Kress and his team fed each chick small fish, and when the puffins fledged the scientists crossed their fingers in the hope that the birds would return to the island to establish a breeding colony. Actually, the scientists did more than cross their fingers: they set up wooden puffin decoys and mirrors to convince the puffins they had company.

It worked, and today about 90 pairs nest at Eastern Egg Rock and more than 330 pairs nest at Seal Island.

If you have RealPlayer, you can watch the puffins at http://www.projectpuffin.org/puffin-cam.html . Notice the body language. A puffin walking quickly with its head bowed is signaling that it is “just passing through and doesn’t mean any trouble” as it walks through a crowded colony and inevitably crosses another puffin’s territory. If you see a puffin gaping, it’s likely a prelude to aggression. T he wider the beak is opened the more upset the puffin; if he’s really ticked off he’ll stomp his foot. T he best times are morning and early afternoon; very relaxing.

But here, too, global warming threatens to flood key puffin colonies, says Kress, who doesn’t want to see his decades of work swallowed up by the rising seas.