The Atlantic puffin population, which nearly disappeared 100 years ago, is once again at risk in the United States.
In the Gulf of Maine, the funny-looking seabirds have been dying of starvation and losing body weight, possibly because fish are moving away from the area as ocean temperatures rise, according to scientists.
The survival rates of fledglings, or puffin chicks, in Maine’s two largest puffin colonies plunged last summer, and puffins are in declining health at the largest puffin colony in the gulf, on a Canadian island about 10 miles off eastern Maine. Dozens of very thin birds were found washed ashore in Massachusetts and Bermuda this past winter, probably victims of starvation.
Whether dead puffins will continue washing up on shore and puffin chick survival rates will stay low remains to be seen. But there are enough signals suggesting that puffins and other seabirds could be in trouble, said Rebecca Holberton, an associate professor at the University of Maine, who has studied puffins for years.
The situation has drawn the attention of scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who are looking at how shifting fish populations can affect puffins.
With its colorful striped beak, pear-shaped body and amusing waddle, the Atlantic puffin is sometimes called the clown of the sea. It’s also held up as an example of successful seabird restoration.
An estimated 6 million to 8 million puffins live across the North Atlantic, from Maine to northern Russia. But they almost disappeared from Maine after settlers hunted them in the late 1800s for food, eggs and feathers. By 1901, only one pair of puffins nested in Maine, on remote Matinicus Rock.
Steve Kress, director of the National Audubon Society’s seabird restoration program, has worked for the past 40 years to restore the puffin population off the Maine coast. Puffins spend most of their lives at sea, coming ashore only to breed each spring before returning to the ocean in August. The chicks swim to sea about 40 days after hatching and usually return to the islands after two years.
More than 2,000 of the birds are now in Maine, mostly on three islands. But the chick survival rates in the two largest colonies took a dive last summer, possibly because of a lack of herring, their primary food source, Kress said.
Instead of feeding their young mostly herring, puffin parents were giving them large numbers of butterfish, a fish whose numbers are growing in the gulf. But the chicks ended up starving because the butterfish were too big and round for them to swallow, Kress said.
Kress thinks that warming water in the Gulf of Maine could be to blame.
“We don’t know how the puffin will adapt to these changes — or if they’ll adapt to these conditions,” he said.