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.
Eventually a lone puffin appears just offshore, furiously flapping its stubby little wings. “Those wings are a compromise,” Kress says. “He needs to fly underwater, too.” The bird lands next to a puffin decoy perched on a rock. Then another live bird joins it. And another. Five more land.
“See the grooves on the bill?” Kress says. “They’re like rings on a tree. The older the bird, the more grooved the bill.” And they can get pretty gnarled; it’s not uncommon for a puffin to live 20 years or more. One old-timer on Egg Rock is 35.
The puffins are smaller than I’d expected. They’re a bit like miniature penguins, 10 inches high, tuxedoed and plump. And they’re exceedingly cute.
“The charisma of the puffin,” says Pete Salmansohn, Project Puffin’s education coordinator. “That’s what brought the media, and what drew volunteers and donors.” In the 1970s a feature spot on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom inspired a young Susan Schubel. A decade later, as a University of New Hampshire graduate, she volunteered to live in tents on Maine’s outer islands. As a result of her 13 years with Project Puffin, Schubel now consults as a seabird audio engineer on international restoration projects. Last year, for example, she designed a system that broadcast double-crested cormorant calls to lure the birds to Oakland’s new Bay Bridge, because their perches on the old bridge rafters are scheduled for demolition in 2015. It’s a technology Kress first developed to attract common, roseate, and Arctic terns to Maine islands. (Puffins are visually oriented; terns respond more strongly to acoustic safety signals.)
Project Puffin’s influence began to reverberate in the early 1980s, when word of its accomplishments inspired other translocation programs. “The work on Egg Rock showed us that the strong homing instinct of long-lived seabirds could be overcome,” recalls Colin Miskelly, a biologist who during the past 20 years has led dozens of translocation projects in New Zealand for species from common diving petrels to lizards.
Kress’s techniques have been passed along largely by former interns—there are more than 500 of them from 18 countries—by word of mouth, and in scientific journals. In their next phase, Kress and his colleagues envision a formalized approach to seabird restoration education. They would like to bring young professionals from around the globe to the Audubon Seabird Institute they will establish at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. The scientists would do 10-week internships, during which they would receive training in methods for restoring nesting seabird populations on islands.
People sometimes ask Kress about his exit strategy: At what point do you declare Project Puffin a victory and walk away? He thought about that a lot in his early years.
“If people were ever going to exit Egg Rock and turn it back to nature, we had to find a balance, some way to protect the puffins against predators,” he says. “I thought the answer would be the terns.”
Puffins and terns tolerate each other as nesting neighbors, and common terns are notoriously tough defenders, often flocking together to attack predators like black-backed gulls, which prey upon puffins. Puffins are swimmers not fighters, so they reap great benefit from their neighbors’ willingness to ward off danger.