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Are Puffins Endangered?
- Sea parrot, clown of the sea, coulterneb.
- Lundi, lunde, macareux, тупик (pronounced tupik), ツノメドリ(pronounced tsunomedori)
- Tammie Norrie.
Those are a few of the names puffins are known by around the world. The first list is of nicknames for these cute birds.
The second list contains words for puffin in: Icelandic, Norwegian, French, Russian and Japanese – you will find puffins in all these countries.
Tammie Norrie is the name affectionately given to puffins in the Shetland and Orkney Isles and is now recognized throughout Scotland.
Whatever these beautiful birds are called, they are universally loved. And they are in crisis.
Is the puffin endangered?
Worldwide, puffins are not on the red list for endangered species. However their numbers are falling and as of October 2015 the previously abundant Atlantic Puffin is now listed as vulnerable to extinction. In the autumn of 2015, seabirds along America's Pacific coastline have been dying in unprecedented numbers, so it's possible the Tufted Puffins, Horned Puffins and Rhinoceros Auks will also soon be on the "at risk" lists.
All around the world numbers are declining dramatically for several years. In Maine, USA, puffins are classified as an endangered species within the area.
Puffins in crisis
This article looks what is happening to puffins around the globe and at what is being done to help them.
Puffins in Iceland
The Westman Islands of Iceland is home to the largest puffin breeding colony in the world, but this colony is rapidly shrinking. As recently as 2009 the British chef Gordon Ramsay created a stir when he visited Iceland ate a puffin’s heart for television. At that time puffin eating was still regarded as commonplace in Iceland and Gordon Ramsay was cleared of charges of violating broadcasting rules after viewers complained.
A little over two years later, in September 2011, the Iceland Review Online reported that after centuries of eating puffins, a total ban on puffin hunting now exists on the Westman Islands in an attempt to help them survive. That same year, puffins surprised Icelanders by staying on the islands long past the usual departure of mid-August. It seemed that after a summer of famine there was eventually sand eels for them to eat. In Iceland, as elsewhere, puffins are often not breeding or breeding late in the season.
Puffins are not the only seabirds to be suffering in this way. In 2011, out of 200 – 300 kittiwake nests on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in west Iceland, only seven chicks were seen.
Rost and Finnmark in Norway
Norway’s puffin decline
Norway, with an estimated 30% of the world’s Atlantic Puffin population, is a country where puffins have fared particularly badly in recent years. As in Iceland, puffins used to be hunted, and centuries Norwegians even bred a dog, the Lundehund, specifically for hunting puffins. That practice has now given way to conserving puffins.
Norwegian puffin numbers have fallen by two thirds in 30 years. Chicks aren’t hatching. One colony on the island of Røst dropped in size from 1.5 million puffins in 1981 to 410,000 in 2010. Although during the 1980s puffins throughout the northern part of Norway dropped in population while the numbers remained steady further south, Finnmark, in the far north is now experiencing an increase in numbers.
United Kingdom’s puffins in decline
The United Kingdom has a sizeable puffin population, with roughly 900,000 birds. All around the UK numbers are falling. For example: on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, puffin numbers dropped by one third between 2003 and 2008. In the English Channel, Lundy Island, named after puffins, used to have thousands. Now in Lundy Island’s brochure the current population is described as: “a few pairs”.
Puffins in Canada and the USA
On both sides of North America puffins numbers are falling. Colonies in the most northern areas are still strong, but further south few chicks (known as pufflings) are hatching. In 2005 and 2006 not a single Tufted Puffling was born on the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, and since the 1970s the number of puffins on the islands has fallen from 100,000 pairs to 20,000.
Some good news for puffin conservation in Maine
Puffins used to nest on several islands off the coast of Maine, but numbers declined till there were few birds left in the 1970s. After years of conservation and reintroducing puffins four of the Maine Islands now have some breeding again. The number of puffins on each island varies from just a few birds to 6000 on Machias Seal Island.
Why are puffins at risk of extinction?
Scientists are not certain why the puffin numbers are falling so dramatically, and it is unlikely there is one single reason. Some factors that are probably involved are:
Localised or minor causes of puffins' decline
- Puffin Hunting
- Unnatural Predators
- Light pollution
Major possible causes of puffins' decline
- Over-fishing (particularly of sandeels)
- Global warming
Localised or minor causes
Historically, people ate puffins in many parts of the world and puffin hunting has led to huge reductions in some areas. Puffins only produce one chick each year so if they are hunted widely the population cannot easily recover. In Maine puffins were hunted for their feathers, meat and eggs until they were close to extinction. On St Kilda, a group of islands 100 miles west of the Scottish mainland, seabirds were the staple diet in the 19th and early 20th Century. Puffins were abundant on the islands at that time, and a major food source but they were not hunted sustainably and St Kilda’s puffin population dropped dramatically. (One report says that 89,600 puffins were killed in St Kilda in 1876.)
Puffin hunting is now rare
Today however hunting puffins is not a major cause of their decline. The few countries that still allow it have strict rules about who can hunt and when. In the Faroe Isles it is legal to hunt puffin after the breeding season is over. In Alaska some Inuit who have traditionally eaten puffin are allowed to hunt in a limited way.
The Norway Rat is a threat to puffins
Puffins do have natural predators; in particular the large Black Backed Gull will kill both puffins and their chicks. That is part of seabird life and puffins often wisely choose to nest on secluded offshore islands where gulls are less abundant. Of more concern in several parts of the world are mammal predators who are not native to puffin breeding grounds and so not natural predators. The most common of these are rats, which have arrived on islands following shipwrecks and with no natural predators themselves have increased in numbers. Rats on the Island of Lundy were the main cause of the demise of puffin population there. Unfortunately around the world cats have sometimes been introduced to islands to try to control rats, but then end up killing puffins too. The mink is another animal that has caused extensive damage to seabird populations in some areas. The Arctic fox has also damaged puffin numbers, particularly of the Tufted Puffin in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska.
To protect puffins, conservations have eradicated rats from several islands, including Lundy and Puffin Island in the UK and Yururi and Moyururi Islands in Japan.
When it is time for pufflings to leave the nest and head for open sea they do so at night and use the moon to navigate. If there are lights nearby pufflings can get confused and head inland. On St Kilda army staff take these confused birds to the sea and release them. In Iceland, a country more noted for its hunting of puffin, children collect up pufflings who have strayed into town, place them in boxes and then take them to a safe place to release them into the sea. You can watch this happen in the video below.
Children save puffins on Iceland
Major Causes of Puffin Decline
The most serious pollution threat to puffins comes from oil tankers that carry crude oil from oil fields to refineries.
If a laden tanker runs aground it leaks oil into the sea. Oil on a bird’s feathers makes then stick together and lose their waterproofing. Birds die from the cold or from dehydration after trying to clean themselves, and are also poisoned by the oil. Puffins are very clean birds and in their burrows they even have a separate toilet area to avoid pufflings getting soiled as this could prevent them from flying. Add to this that a single drop of oil can kill a bird’s egg, and you can see why oil spills can have disastrous effects on birds. For puffins with their slow rate of reproduction it can take decades for the population to recover.
When oil tankers, like the Braer below, run aground it can damage the ecosystem
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Major Oil Tanker spills that have affected puffins.
When Torrey Canyon sank in English Channel in 1967, between 80% - 88% of puffins with breeding grounds along the Brittany coast of France died. A further oil spill in the area from the Amoco Cadiz caused more deaths and the puffins nesting on Les Sept Isles in the English Channel reduced from 2500 pairs prior to the Torrey Canyon spill to between 135 – 170 pairs after the Amoco Cadiz. The Amoco Cadiz is the fourth worst marine oil spill to have occurred worldwide, and the Torrey Canyon was the seventh.
In I989 The Exxon Valdez ran aground near the coast of Alaska. The oil spill covered 10,000 square miles of sea, with oil drifting to the southwest and coming ashore 600 miles from the wreck. It contaminated 1500 miles of coastline, including birds’ breeding grounds. Puffins spend from mid-August to April at sea and the accident happened in March, before breeding season or the death toll could have been higher. Nevertheless thousands of birds, including puffins, were affected. The full death toll is not known because some birds died at sea and their bodies sank. Some experts estimate that half a million birds died.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council found that 10 years after the spill only two out of 26 animal species had recovered their numbers. (These were the bald eagle and the river otter.) After this disaster it became clear that oil spills were very toxic to fish. This means puffins and other seabirds are affected not only directly but also indirectly by reduced food supply.
In 1993 the Braer, a tanker traveling from Norway to Canada with a cargo of oil aboard ran aground on rocks off the Shetland Isles, creating the 14th biggest spill world wide. Again, this was not during the breeding season and so the apparent number of birds affected was small. The rough weather that had caused the shipwreck also dispersed the oil within a few days.
How can we prevent oil spills?
The Exxon Valdez and Braer were both constructed with a single hull, which meant oil leaked rapidly into the sea after the hull was breached. After the Exxon Valdez ran aground this type of ship was outlawed in the USA, and the Braer accident led to calls for these to be banned worldwide. This eventually happened in 2005.
However, as with in Alaska, environmental scientists point out that this oil did not simply disappear and the indirect effects of the spillage were wider ranging. Wind blew oil onshore, which affected people, farming land and birds’ breeding grounds.
35% of the spillage sank to the seabed. Although there is not general agreement on the impact of this, some environmental groups believe it could be partly responsible for the decline in sandeels around the Shetland.
Methods used to disperse oil after these accidents are controversial, with some environmentalists believing the chemicals used are almost as toxic to wildlife as the spilled oil.
While scientists may not agree on whether or not oil spillages are a major cause sandeels’ death, there is no disagreement that sandeels are diminishing in both number and size.
Sandeels are small eel like fish, rather than actual eels. They live close to the ocean floor and are often found in inshore waters. Along with small herring, they are the puffin’s staple diet and are particularly important for feeding pufflings. In some cases when sandeels aren’t available puffins try to feed their chicks pipefish instead. Pipefish are not native to northern waters and only began to appear around the UK in large numbers in recent years. Their bodies are hard and bony and young birds, including pufflings, can choke to death on them. Yet more pufflings have starved to death because of lack of suitable food.
Huge factory trawlers like this one catch more fish than is sustainable
Over fishing means taking more fish from the sea than can be replaced by reproduction. It has been happening around the globe for decades. Many countries now have limits on the quantities and sizes of fish that can be caught. While some of the systems used to enforce these limits, or quotas, have created controversy, there is general agreement that limits need to be set on sandeel fishing. In Scotland the need to protect the seabird population has lead to a better understanding of the different types of sandeel and the way they develop. For instance, sandeels in the Firth of Forth are slower growing than those found around the Shetland Isles. The Shetland sandeels are in turn slower growing than those found in open sea areas such as the Dogger Bank. This knowledge is important because it means that where sandeels take longer to reach maturity more steps can be taken to limit fishing and so preserve the puffin population. Sandeel fishing off Shetland has been limited since 1988 when it became clear that there was a connection between low sandeel stock and poor seabird breeding.
Scientists think that the reduction in sand eels could be due to warmer sea temperatures. That the puffin population in the far north of Norway is stable while major colonies such as those on Røst are falling drastically suggests this could be a factor. Currently conservationists do not have the full picture and are working hard to understand the implications so that they can help puffins to thrive.
This beautiful video from Iceland shows the concern for puffins felt there
Conservationists are working to prevent further puffin decline
The keys to helping puffins survive lie in understanding both what is happening to sandeels and learning more about puffin behaviour. One example of this is the work being done on the Farne Islands of coast of England where the puffin population there dropped 30% between 2003 and 2008 but is now recovering.
Wardens fitted some puffins on the Farne Islands with GPS trackers, and discovered the birds were flying 20 miles out to sea to catch sand eels for their chicks. The birds made this journey several times a day.
Knowing where the birds go to feed means that areas could be protected to ensure the puffins survive.
What can we do to help protect these beautiful birds?
Awareness that puffins need to be protected is very important. As we all learn to take better care of the environment we can support charities and conservationists who are working to understand the reasons for puffins’ declining numbers.
Sometimes this support could be getting involved in projects such as one recently run by the Scottish Seabird Centre. In this volunteers cleared a plant that was damaging puffin breeding grounds and preventing them getting to their burrows to nest.
Sometimes that support could be donating money to the conservation charities. And sometimes it could simply be taking the time to read articles such as this one and considering the implications. On behalf of puffins everywhere, thank you for reading.
References and suggested further reading if you would like to know more
Iceland Review Online’s article: Surprisingly High Number of Puffins Still in Iceland
IceNews: Iceland’s puffin stock in crisis
Views and News From Norway: Puffin population under pressure
From the RSPB: Threats
Scottish Government: Sandeels
Scottish Government: POLLUTION RESPONSE IN EMERGENCIES MARINE IMPACT ASSESSMENT AND MONITORING
Marine Ecology Progress Series: Evidence for decrease in size of lesser sandeels Ammodytes marinus in a North Sea aggregation over a 30-yr period