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.
It took four years and the intercession of an early supporter, William H. Drury, research director of Massachusetts Audubon, before the Canadian government gave Kress permission to take six chicks.
With the help of nature enthusiast and Intel cofounder Robert Noyce, another early supporter, Kress and research assistant Kathleen Blanchard moved the chicks in juice cans to be hand-reared on Hog Island and then released on Egg Rock. They hand-fed the chicks hake stuffed with vitamins. When the chicks fledged, Kress says, he never saw them leave. “They always head off to sea in the middle of the night.” Puffins spend most of their lives on the open Atlantic, resting on the water and diving as deep as 100 feet for fish. (Their range remained unknown until Kress and colleagues attached a geolocator to a bird hatched on Maine’s Seal Island in 2009. “Cabot,” named after the explorer John Cabot, roamed over the western Atlantic, from the Labrador Sea all the way to waters near Bermuda.)
Kress and his team translocated more and more chicks in the following years—in all, 954 between 1973 and 1986. For the first four years, no birds returned to Egg Rock.
Kress realized the island, with bare rocks and no birds, didn’t look very appealing. Puffins are highly social. They enjoy one another’s company and view the presence of other puffins at a particular site as a security blanket. An old National Geographic article sparked an idea. Puffin hunters in Iceland, where the birds are common, attracted their prey by propping up dead puffins to lure live ones into range. So in the spring of 1977 Kress put out carved decoys on Egg Rock.
The idea worked. That June two-year-old puffins returned and began nuzzling up to the wooden birds, “billing” them (rubbing bills as a sign of affection) and even attempting to mate with them.
Still, none of the puffins reproduced for four long years. Then on July 4, 1981, Kress’s team spotted a puffin returning to Egg Rock with a beak full of fish. Since adults swallow their prey underwater, it signaled a hungry chick on a nest. The tiny band on the adult’s leg confirmed its place of origin. “It was one of ours,” Kress says.
That year, four nesting pairs raised chicks. The colony plateaued at 15 pairs for about a decade, then continued to grow, stabilizing at more than 100 nesting pairs today.
Kress finishes his story just as we reach Egg Rock’s sandless coast. Maggie Lee Post, 26, the island supervisor, rows out to greet us in an inflatable skiff.
“Watch your step,” she tells me. “A lot of birds are nesting on the rocks and in the grass next to the trail.” She points to an Arctic tern egg on bare rock, marked by a small blue flag. Overhead a cloud of agitated terns and laughing gulls announce our presence. “You might be dive-bombed a little,” she warns. We follow Post up the trail, surrounded by shrieking terns.
Kress and I head off to one of the island’s 11 bird blinds. “When we first came out here we were extremely careful not to disturb the birds,” he says. “But now we know our visible presence actually helps to keep predators away.”
As we wait for puffins to appear, Kress points to numbers painted onto the shoreline rocks, granite fractured into flat table boulders by winter ice and tossed haphazardly into stacks. “Each of those is a puffin burrow, and they go down quite a ways, like an apartment building,” he says. “A mated pair will return to the same one year after year.”