The Atlantic Puffins just can’t get a break. First, they were so over-hunted for food, eggs, and feathers in the 19th century that by 1901 there was only one breeding pair left in Maine. Now, after ecologists have spent the last century successfully repopulating the state, puffins face a new threat: climate change.
Puffins, like many seabird species serve as indicators of ecosystem health. This spring, 3,500 puffins were found dead on Scotland beaches after strong storms, and survival rates of fledglings plunged in the Gulf of Maine. Experts say that they are not finding enough food to maintain their body weight and feed their chicks. As ocean temperatures rise, the fish populations shift, meaning the seabirds have trouble finding the prey they need to survive.
These strandings and unusual behaviors by puffins, razorbills, and other seabirds are a sign that all is not well. They are coinciding with warmer water temperatures and abnormally big storms like Superstorm Sandy last fall. Large storms can cause damage to puffin nesting sites, and warmer waters are causing the fish communities to change. Butterfish, a southern fish that is becoming more common in the north, are replacing herring as the primary food source for puffins. Unfortunately, butterfish are too big for puffin chicks to swallow. As a result, chick survival rates are plunging as the adult puffins struggle to find enough food.
Conservation groups are working to keep the public interested in the plight of the puffins. Puffins are charismatic, adorable little birds that attract more than 10,000 people to their breeding colonies in Maine each summer. The puffin has been held up as a poster-child of seabird conservation because of its charismatic appearance. It is a good reminder for all of us that we don’t need to hunt them to do them harm. The choices we make in our everyday lives–paper bag or plastic bag, drive or take the bus–can have just as much of an impact.
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