A Crazy Idea to Bring Back Atlantic Puffins Is a Success

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

“I’m anxious to see how the carpets are working out,” he says on a trip to Egg Rock. Four interns live all summer on the island, guarding the nests of puffins, common terns, Arctic terns, laughing gulls, and storm petrels. Fast-growing mustard weeds threaten the tern nests (“Terns can’t find their chicks in it,” he explains), so Kress laid down a few strips of rock-colored carpet to prevent the vegetation from growing. He wants to see if the terns can successfully nest on the artificial surface.

That kind of ingenuity has marked Project Puffin from its beginnings. The puffin recovery story is often told as a tale of unqualified success. But as Kress unspools the details of his 40-year career, it’s apparent that acceptance of his approach was hard won—born of Kress’s ability to push against the norm and exercise the courage to fail, learn, fail again, and ultimately succeed. Over the years his example has fostered a robust culture of debate and trial and error.

“The autonomy we have to exercise scientific thought and try new ideas—that’s what keeps us coming back,” says Emily Pollom. For the past two summers Pollom, a 27-year-old biologist, has co-managed common, Arctic, and least tern colonies with her fiancé, biologist John Gorey, 29, on Stratton Island, also off the Maine coast. “If I call in [to the Project Puffin office in Bremen, Maine] and say to Steve or Paula Shannon, the seabird sanctuary manager, ‘Hey, we’ve noticed the common terns like to do this with the tidal wrack. What if we put some wrack on the carpets?’, they’ll think it over and say, ‘Sure, give it a try.’ ”

It’s hard to imagine, but 40 years ago conventional wisdom held that seabirds shouldn’t be helped at all.


In the early 1970s the ruling theory held that humans should let nature take its course. If that meant scavengers like gulls and raccoons crowded out other species, then so be it.

“I didn’t buy that,” Kress recalls.

The problem was, humans had already interfered and tilted the playing field. Herring and black-backed gulls had taken over islands like Egg Rock because fishermen and hunters had killed all the puffins and terns. Gulls flourished by fattening up on lobster bait and open-air garbage dumps, not because they were winning any “balance of nature” battle.

Photograph by John Huba

Puffins launch themselves into flight from rocky cliffs along the coast. Their takeoffs and landings look awkward, but the birds are expert swimmers and divers, using their wings to propel them deep underwater, where they catch fish in the frigid depths.

By the early 1970s puffins had vanished, though their habitat was still there. So were the fish. Puffins feed their young a heavy diet of juvenile white hake, which are the perfect size and shape to slip down a chick’s gullet whole.

Ornithologists knew that puffins breed at the same sites where they are raised, and that the young alcids go to sea for two to three years before returning to their fledging grounds to mate. Kress’s plan was to move 10-day-old chicks from Great Island, Newfoundland—then host to more than 160,000 Fratercula
nests—to Egg Rock before they imprinted on the Canadian island. The homing instinct is strong in puffins and many other seabirds. Once they fledge, it’s difficult to convince them to nest anywhere other than their natal grounds. Translocating adults wouldn’t do any good—no matter how desirable the new habitat, they’d always fly back to their birth site.

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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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