Puffins Are Making a Comeback in Maine

After a down year in 2021, the birds have had two good years in a row

Puffin with fish in its beak
A puffin on Eastern Egg Rock carries fish to feed its young. Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Atlantic puffins in Maine are recovering this year after facing a devastating breeding season in 2021. In that year, declining numbers of their fish prey led to only about a quarter of the birds fledging chicks. The birds are now rebounding for the second consecutive year, despite facing challenges of warming waters from climate change, reports Patrick Whittle of the Associated Press

“This year is a good example of how complex things are. We can’t boil it down to one variable,” Don Lyons, director of conservation science at National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute in Bremen, Maine, tells the AP. “We still have a lot to learn.”

Islands off the coast of Maine once housed hundreds of nesting puffin (Fratercula arctica) pairs before around 1860. But by 1900, hunting, egg collection and the introduction of sheep to nesting areas nearly wiped the birds out. 

In 1973, then Audubon camp bird instructor, Steve Kress (also called “the Puffin Man”), launched Project Puffin by translocating six chicks from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock Island in Maine. At the time, no one had ever successfully re-established a population of seabirds by moving chicks from an existing colony to a new island, per Audubon magazine. Many scientists considered Kress’s plan a long shot. But his idea worked—five of the six birds successfully fledged (developed feathers for flight)—and in the following years, researchers continued rearing chicks in captivity to fledgling. The colony has now reached about 3,000 birds and its population is stable, Lyons tells the AP.  

Researchers with the society have been monitoring the birds since their reintroduction and helping to attract them to suitable nesting sites using techniques such as decoys, mirrors and recordings. They’ve also been banding young puffins so they can identify and study them as they get older, reports Steve Minich for WMTW.  

“We look at what fish they’re bringing in, which tells us about their health, but it also tells us about the ocean’s health and climate change, how it’s impacting,” researcher Emma Lachance tells the publication. 

In recent years, researchers have noticed a decline in herring numbers, which were traditionally one of puffins’ top food choices for their babies. Such drops have been linked to higher water temperatures—the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming ocean regions on the planet—and overfishing. This year, an abundance of sand lance, a silvery and elongated fish, in the early summer helped supplement the puffins’ diet. It’s unclear why there were so many sand lances in the warming waters of Maine, since they are a cold water species that feeds on cold water copepods, reports Derrick Z. Jackson for the Maine Monitor. By mid-July of this year, the sand lance had disappeared and the puffins switched to haddock, hake and redfish. 

“I can’t offhand recall such a seamless transition from one fish to another,” Lyons tells the Maine Monitor. “It tells you a lot about the resourcefulness of puffins and at the same time, it’s a reminder of how much we still don’t know of when and where food is for seabirds, and how fast that all can change.” 

Researchers warn that long-term impacts of climate change, including heat waves, sea level rise and loss of food are existential threats to all seabirds, including puffins, per the AP. Still, the fifty year effort that helped puffins rebound in Maine is cause for celebration. 

“It's not just a conservation story for us here in Maine, even though it’s a great one for locally,” Lyons tells WMTW. “It’s really a worldwide conservation success story.”

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