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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Today seabirds around the world benefit from techniques pioneered by Kress and his puffineers. Bird decoys, recorded calls and in some cases, mirrors—so seabirds will see the movements of their own reflections and find the faux colonies more realistic—have been used to restore 49 seabird species in 14 countries, including extremely rare birds such as the tiny Chatham petrel in New Zealand and the Galápagos petrel on the Galápagos Islands.

“A lot of seabird species aren’t willing to come back to islands on their own—they’re not adventurous enough,” says Bernie Tershy, a seabird researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “So in the big picture, Steve’s work is a critical component of protecting seabirds.” With more and larger breeding colonies, seabirds are more likely to survive disease outbreaks, oil spills and other disasters.

Despite these successes, seabirds are still declining more quickly than any other group of birds, largely because of invasive predators, habitat loss, pollution and baited hooks set out by longline fishing fleets; many species will also likely suffer as climate change leads to rising sea levels and skimpier food supplies, says Tershy.

Project Puffin tactics are already deployed against these new threats. For example, the Bermuda petrel lives on a group of tiny, low-lying atolls off the Bermuda coast, where it is vulnerable to mere inches of sea-level rise or a single powerful storm. Scientists recently employed Kress’ techniques to relocate petrel chicks to higher ground, a nearby island called Nonsuch where the birds had been driven off by hunters and invasive species. Last summer, a petrel chick hatched and fledged on Nonsuch Island—the first to do so in almost 400 years.

Eastern Egg Rock has a human population of three, minimal electricity and no plumbing. Thousands of gulls swoop over the island, their cries combining into a near-deafening cackle. Terns, their narrow white wings angled like airborne origami sculptures, dive for human heads, the birds’ shrill scolds adding to the cacophony. Underfoot, gangs of chubby tern chicks scuttle in and out of the grass, testing their wings with tentative flaps.

On the boulders that rim the island, more seabirds loaf in the midsummer sun, gathering in cliques to gossip and preen—looking for all the world like an avian cocktail party.

A puffin in flight, stumpy wings whirring, careers in for a landing. Orange feet spread wide, it approaches a boulder, wobbles in the air for an instant, and—pop!—hits the rock, a fish shining in its striped, oversized beak. The puffin hops into a crevice between two rocks, presumably to deliver the fish to a hungry chick, and bounds back up to mingle with other puffins before its next expedition.

Each puffin pair raises a single chick. Once the young bird fledges, it heads south, but no one knows exactly where the juveniles spend their first two to three years. Though puffins are speedsters—they can reach 55 miles an hour in flight—their greatest talents are displayed at sea, where they use their feet and wings to maneuver expertly underwater.

“Never let it be said that puffins are awkward,” says Kress, who is director of Project Puffin and affiliated with Cornell University. “They can dive more than 200 feet in water, they can burrow like groundhogs and they can scamper over rocks. They’re all-purpose birds.”

On Eastern Egg Rock, Kress sits in a cramped plywood bird blind on the edge of the island, watching the seabirds toil for their chicks. Even after countless hours hunched behind binoculars, he’s still charmed by his charges.


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