A Crazy Idea to Bring Back Atlantic Puffins Is a Success

Photograph by John Huba
Photograph by John Huba
Map by Peter and Maria Hoey
Map by Peter and Maria Hoey

A Crazy Idea to Bring Back Atlantic Puffins Is a Success

Ornithologist Steve Kress’s once-controversial methods are the gold standard for saving seabirds around the world.


By Bruce Barcott
Published: September-October 2013

Every visit to Eastern Egg Rock Island, six miles off the coast of Maine, is like coming home for Steve Kress, a soft-spoken man of 67. Forty years ago, as a young Audubon bird life instructor, he hatched the idea of reviving the Atlantic puffin colonies that flourished on this seven-acre island before hunters wiped them out in the 1880s. Years of trial and error ultimately led to the reestablishment of puffins—now 2,000 strong on three protected islands, including Egg Rock—and to the creation of Project Puffin, an Audubon program that today manages North Atlantic breeding colonies of American oystercatchers, Arctic terns, and 14 other seabird species, on seven Maine islands.

Maine gave birth to Kress’s ideas, but during the past 30 years the discoveries and techniques pioneered by Project Puffin have driven a new science of seabird restoration and conservation. In that time nearly 60 projects worldwide have used Kress’s “social attraction” techniques to move dozens of seabird populations to safer nesting grounds (see "The Power of Attraction," below). Decoys simulating specific species and amplified birdcalls signal that the new location is desirable and secure. Moving very young chicks from an old colony to a new one can help the birds imprint, encouraging their return to the safer island when it’s time to come in from sea and establish their own broods.

Those strategies have set the standard everywhere. They helped save the Bermuda petrel, whose nests were threatened by storms and rising sea level. Between 2004 and 2008 scientists translocated 105 petrel chicks to a 15-acre wildlife sanctuary on higher ground, and by 2012, 15 pairs were breeding there. On Japan’s Torishima Island, a colony of short-tailed albatrosses, one of the most threatened birds on earth, was nesting on the rim of an active volcano. Using decoys and audio recordings, biologists first lured adults away from the rim, and then moved chicks to a safer nearby island. Comparable projects have built new colonies of diving petrels in New Zealand, double-crested cormorants in Oregon, and Ascension Island frigatebirds in the equatorial South Atlantic.

“There aren’t many of us who can look at our lives and say we made a real difference to the planet,” says Scott Weidensaul, author of the bird migration classic Living on the Wind. “Steve is one of them.”

Map by Peter and Maria Hoey
Map by Peter and Maria Hoey

Four decades after bringing the first puffin chicks to Egg Rock, Kress hasn’t slowed down. Now director of Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, he’s still experimenting with new ideas.

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There were over 1,000 pairs

There were over 1,000 pairs of Puffins breeding in the Gulf of Maine before the National Audubon society famously "Brought them back". It should be acknowledged in a realistic discussion of their program that transplanted puffins added about 2% to a growing and expanding population. The significance of the use of Social attraction of seabirds on the coast of Maine by the National Audubon society has been similarly misrepresented.
From Vinalhaven you can hire a boat to take you to Seal Island to see the birds there, among them Great Cormorants the most threatened seabird population on the coast of Maine.

Check out

Check out hardyboat.com/puffin.htm !! The tours are led by members of Audubon research staff and it's a wonderful way to un-obtrusively get close to the birds. Great opportunities for photography!

Donal O'Brien gave my

Donal O'Brien gave my husband, Ken Gleason, the honor of carving the Puffins!

This was the cover story in

This was the cover story in the current issue.

Hello Puffin Fans! You can

Hello Puffin Fans!

You can visit Seal Island and look into a nesting burrow from the comfort of your own home!

Care of explore.org in conjunction with Audubon.
Loafing Ledge - where puffins, razorbills, murres and more come to hang out: http://explore.org/#!/live-cams/player/puffin-loafing-ledge-cam

Burrow Cam: http://explore.org/#!/live-cams/player/puffin-burrow-cam

The breeding season just ended and a puffling (baby puffin) that we watched emerge from the egg and grow has recently fledged. Her name is Hope and she is wonderful.

There are lots of pictures and videos on the explore site to tide us over until next spring.

I would go see them in July.

I would go see them in July. That is the best time. See: http://projectpuffin.audubon.org/puffin-watching-cruises :-)

One of my bucket list ideas

One of my bucket list ideas is to go see the Puffins, but I do not want to cause any harm and wonder when is the best time to see them and is a charter boat the best way to see them off the coast of Maine? Thank you for your response in advance.

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