A Puffin Comeback

Atlantic puffins had nearly vanished from the Maine coast until a young biologist defied conventional wisdom to lure them home

On Eastern Egg Rock, off Maine's coast, researchers label favored hangouts to help track the birds and monitor their behavior. (José Azel)
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Impossibly cute, with pear-shaped bodies, beak and eye markings as bright as clown makeup and a wobbly, slapstick walk, Atlantic puffins were once a common sight along the Maine coast. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries people collected eggs from puffins and other seabirds for food, a practice memorialized in the names of Eastern Egg Rock and other islands off the coast of New England. Hunters shot the plump birds for meat and for feathers to fill pillows and adorn women’s hats.

By 1901, only a single pair of Atlantic puffins was known to nest in the United States—on Matinicus Rock, a barren island 20 miles from the Maine coast. Wildlife enthusiasts paid the lighthouse keeper to protect the two birds from hunters.

Things began to change in 1918, when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act banned the killing of many wild birds in the United States. Slowly, puffins returned to Matinicus Rock.

But not to the rest of Maine. Islands that puffins had once inhabited had become enemy territory, occupied by colonies of large, aggressive, predatory gulls that thrived on the debris generated by a growing human population. Though puffins endured elsewhere in their historic range—the North Atlantic coasts of Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Britain—by the 1960s the puffin was all but forgotten in Maine.

In 1964, then 18-year-old Stephen Kress was so smitten with nature that he signed up to spend the summer washing dishes at a National Audubon Society camp in Connecticut. There Carl Buchheister, president of the Audubon Society, entertained the kitchen crew with stories about his seabird research on the cliffs of Matinicus Rock. Kress, who had grown up in Columbus, Ohio, went on to attend Ohio State, where he earned a degree in zoology; he then worked as a birding instructor in New Brunswick, Canada, where he visited islands overflowing with terns, gulls—and puffins.

When, in 1969, Kress landed his dream job, as an instructor at the Hog Island Audubon Camp on the Maine coast, the islands he visited seemed desolate, with few species other than large gulls. He wondered if puffins could be transplanted so the birds might once again accept these islands as home. No one had ever tried to transplant a bird species before.

“I just wanted to believe it was possible,” Kress says.

Though a handful of wildlife biologists supported him, others dismissed the idea. There were still plenty of puffins in Iceland, some pointed out; why bother? Others insisted the birds were hard-wired to return only to the place where they had hatched and would never adopt another home. Still others accused Kress of trying to play God.

Kress argued that bringing puffins back to Maine could help the entire species. As for playing God, Kress didn’t see a problem. “We’d been playing the Devil for about 500 years,” says Tony Diamond, a Canadian seabird researcher who has collaborated with Kress for decades. “It was time to join the other side.”

Kress went to work preparing a place for puffin chicks on Eastern Egg Rock, a seven-acre granite island about eight miles off the coast of Bremen, Maine. Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shot dozens of gulls and drove off many more to make the island safer for young puffins.


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