We Saved the Puffins. Now a Warming Planet Is Unraveling That Work.
By Derrick Z. Jackson
I stepped onto the battlefield of climate change, sidestepping carcass after carcass. In the grass were the remains of Arctic terns, common terns, and roseate terns. Along the boulders, researchers pointed out dead puffin chicks. As other climate war zones smolder with wildfire embers, are strewn with flattened homes, or marked by bleached coral, the signature of conflict on a seabird island in the Gulf of Maine is a maddening quietude.
I began visiting these islands 35 years ago. Until this past summer, every walk to a bird blind meant going through a gauntlet of angry, dive-bombing birds pecking at my head, pooping on my shoulders, and screeching at a deafening pitch as I passed by their chicks darting at my feet. Even in the blind, the cacophony of birds swirling about obliterated all other sound. This year, with so much nest failure and so few chicks to protect, I heard the lapping ocean a football field away.
My heart ached that this can’t be. My head said of course it is. This is exactly what scientists said would happen with uncontrolled warming. No matter how high or how far they can fly, seabirds are climate change prisoners. Our inaction makes us the executioners.
I was on islands managed by National Audubon’s Project Puffin. I have co-written and photographed two books with its founding ornithologist, Steve Kress. In an effort that began nearly a half-century ago, Kress directed the world’s first restoration of a seabird to an island where humans massacred them into local extinction.
Atlantic puffins, which historically bred on many islands off the coast of Maine, were nearly wiped out in the 1800s for their meat and eggs as hunters annihilated herons, egrets, terns, and gulls for millinery feathers. By 1901, puffins were down to a final pair on a sole island, Matinicus Rock, an island 25 miles out to sea from the coastal town of Rockland.
Early conservationists protected those last puffins on Matinicus Rock. But they were so disrupted, they rebounded to only a few dozen pairs by the 1970s. Puffins never returned to any other islands. The destruction of 19th century biodiversity was compounded by 20th century carelessness. Islands were overrun by omnivorous, aggressive gulls, fattened significantly by landfill garbage along the coasts and fishing industry waste. Other bird species that dared to attempt to breed near gulls could have their chicks gulped down like popcorn.
An island where puffins were eliminated was Eastern Egg Rock. It was eight miles out from an Audubon summer camp on Maine’s mid-coast. For decades, campers circled the rock on cruises with no knowledge that puffins were once there. They were happy to see the gulls.
Kress came to the camp in 1969 as a bird instructor. One day in the camp library, he came upon a 1949 book that said puffins had resided on the rock. He was filled with visions of restoration. The appeal was obvious. Puffins are particularly colorful seabirds with orange and yellow beaks and human-like mannerisms. Mates intimately nuzzle their beaks. In tuxedo-like plumage, puffins often waddle amongst each other as if they were at a black-tie reception.
In my first interview with Kress in 1986 for Newsday, he deadpanned that his interest in puffins had little to do with the bird’s beauty. “I’m a scientist,” he told me. “As a scientist, your reasons for research have to go deeper than that. But yeah, I suppose they’re cute.”
In 1973, he began years of bringing hundreds of puffin chicks down from Newfoundland. As U.S. Fish and Wildlife experts brought gulls under control, Kress and colleagues raised puffin chicks in makeshift burrows until they hopped into the ocean. He hoped that when it was time to breed two or three years later, his birds would select Eastern Egg Rock instead of Newfoundland as their home. He used decoys and mirrors to create the illusion that the rock was prime puffin real estate.
Puffins began returning in 1977 and started breeding in 1981. In 2019, Eastern Egg Rock hit a record 188 pairs of puffins. Project Puffin spread to other islands, resulting today in 1,300 breeding pairs of puffins across islands in the Gulf of Maine.
The project has also revived tern populations and cousins of the puffin — common murres and razorbills. The project is iconic in the world of conservation for righting wrongs of the 19th and 20th century. Kress’s methods of translocating chicks and using decoys, mirrors, and taped calls for social attraction helped revive and relocate more than 130 of the world’s approximately 350 seabird species in more than 40 countries from mortal dangers such as volcanoes, oil spills, and other animals.
Back in our first interview, Kress thought the biggest threat to his work was that gulls might outfox him to retake the islands. In retrospect, 21st century human threats were already building on a global scale. Amid his efforts, the world’s seabird populations were in the process of dropping 70 percent from 1950 to 2010. The causes included plastic trash, oil, gas, and chemical industry pollution, agricultural runoff, overfishing and fishing gear, commercial coastal development, military operations, bright lights, power lines, and water warmed by climate change’s heat-trapping gases from fossil fuel emissions.
Over the last decade, warmer waters have slammed into the Gulf of Maine as forcefully as a hurricane. For cold-water sea life, the temperatures are their wildfire.
The gulf, cupped between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia, is heating up faster than nearly every other ocean system on Earth. The last five years (2015-2020) have been the warmest on record, with 2020 bringing the hottest single day of sea-surface temperature, nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The average summer sea-surface temperature has risen from 57 degrees to 61.
Climate change is altering the currents. Melting Arctic freshwater is slowing down the Labrador Current, allowing the warm Gulf Stream to expand its presence. For humans the water is still bone-chilling. For many North Atlantic fish, I often make the analogy — approved by scientists I’ve interviewed — that a 4-degree difference is like bundling up in winter to fly from frigid Boston to tropical Miami, but unable to shed the parka on South Beach.
Such fish respond by fleeing to colder water that is too deep or far out for seabirds to reach to feed their chicks. That phenomenon was fully evident in the summer of 2021. Heatwaves that delivered record temperatures to Maine cities resulted in puffins finding fewer fish and desperate terns bringing only moths, butterflies, and flying ants.
Then a relentless wave of storms delivered record rainfall, including a 3-inch deluge from Hurricane Elsa, to parts of Maine. On the islands, the increase in rain and the timing of intense rain events from climate change was fatal to birds in multiple ways.
The first death blow was the flooding of nests with unhatched eggs. The second came to many of the chicks that hatched and then starved because of the heat wave. A third hit came with the rains. Chicks died in a death spiral of hyperthermia as they were too big for parents to cover them up, had no energy reserves to stay warm, and were too flightless to escape either the rain or the sopping vegetation that grows faster and thicker when increased rain mixes with the natural fertilizer of bird guano. Other weak birds can be snatched up by predators emboldened during heavy rains by the absence of researchers who are hunkered down in cabins and tents.
Many tern chicks that survived the onslaught grew so slowly that it took nearly six weeks to fledge, compared to the normal three. So many puffins grew so slowly that researchers nicknamed them “micro-puffins.” Such birds have a very uncertain chance of survival as they must fend for themselves way out at sea for two to three years until breeding instincts bring them back to the islands.
This took the worst mental toll on island researchers that I’ve ever seen. Most seabird islands are managed in the summer by buoyant young adults, who generally range in age from their late teens to late 20s. They relish the challenge of contorting their bodies into pretzels to “grub” under the boulders to find puffins to measure and band. They are undaunted by three months of isolation and sleeping in tents, often waking up before dawn to count birds in cold, soaking fog. Universal among crews is a deep caring for the planet and a cheerful optimism that their work on a speck in the ocean matters.
This summer, their caring over the carnage turned into a primal scream for action on climate change. One example in Project Puffin is Seal Island, more than 20 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean from the nearest major coastal town of Rockland, Maine. Much bigger than Eastern Egg Rock, Kress replicated his puffin project to restore the bird after a century’s absence. Today there are more than 500 breeding pairs of puffins.
On this island, it was the absence of other birds, not puffins, that drew notice. The number of Arctic tern and common tern chicks were among the lowest ever recorded. When researchers went out to band, they encountered fields of dead tern chicks.
“The chicks we found should have been big enough to band, but they weren’t,” said research assistant Elaine Beaudoin. “They’re fighting for their lives on death’s door.”
Keenan Yakola was the staff ecologist on Seal Island this summer. “We as a society are throwing everything at them and they’re doing everything they can do to survive,” he said. “It’s hard not to feel angry.”
Coco Faber was the supervisor for the Seal Island crew. “It’s like we’re all out here screaming to get attention,” she said. “It’s hard not to feel rage that it seems like no one is listening or caring.”
On Matinicus Rock, which grew from that final pair of puffins in 1901 to more than 500 pairs today, researchers observed some of the lowest number of chicks per nest for terns and razorbills. During particularly warm periods, puffins were bringing in butterfish, a species usually more common in mid-Atlantic waters. Butterfish are usually too large and oval for small chicks to swallow.
“It was hard to come in and eat dinner after a day of watching puffin after puffin coming in with butterfish for a chick,” research assistant Alyssa Eby said. “You knew that chick was starving.”
On Stratton Island, south of Portland, Maine, in Saco Bay, higher and higher tides washed out tern nests. Along the coast of Maine, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge reported high abandonment of seabird habitat from the volatility of cold rain, beach erosion, and heatwaves. On Petit Manan Island, managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, only 12 tern chicks survived out of 150 monitored eggs and only 9 puffin chicks fledged out of 87 observed burrows.
Back on the “mother” island of Eastern Egg Rock, researchers witnessed the biggest percentage drop in puffins in the project’s history, from 188 pairs in 2019 to 140 this summer. There were also crashes in tern chicks.
As island supervisor Kay Garlick-Ott told me: “People keep talking about that this will eventually become the long-term pattern. That pattern is normal.”
It is so normal that Maine’s puffins and terns have overnight become some of the most important “climate canaries” in the animal world. In 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature upped the threat level for Atlantic puffins to “Vulnerable” globally and “Endangered” in Europe.
We’re already creating plenty of conflicts of scarcity for seabirds. Herring, once a prime prey for puffins in Maine, have been overfished. Puffins are resourceful and have switched — when the waters are cool — to fish that have rebounded with strict federal management, such as haddock, hake, and redfish. But when warm waters drive off even those fish, the sight of a puffin with a shimmering large butterfish can send gulls into a frenzy of thievery. On Eastern Egg Rock I watched helplessly from the blinds as laughing gulls pounced on puffins bringing in fish for a chick. Terns coming in with fish for a chick were also mercilessly dive-bombed.
Unmanaged climate change creates Las Vegas odds of finding the right fish, with puffins and terns losing a fortune of chicks. One of the most painful sights of being in the blinds is seeing unlucky puffin parents bringing only the dreaded butterfish to the burrows. On Eastern Egg Rock, I was led to burrows where I twisted around underneath until I could see the rotting, rejected butterfish that led to chicks starving to death.
The question is whether the public cares about the odds we’ve stacked against the birds. It is not too late to reverse them. They are still displaying a remarkable resiliency even though climate change has made 5 of the last 10 years, including 2021, the worst on record for Project Puffin’s islands. The number of breeding puffin pairs on Eastern Egg Rock still hit its all-time high just three summers ago. Tern populations on the islands are either stable or increasing. Kress, now 76, said the bad years statistically remain the exception. He said he remains “hopeful” for the future of puffins if they “can put a face on climate change that makes people care.”
Clearly, birds touch something in us when we pause to admire them. Birdwatching in the United States boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic. After a half century where the United States lost 3 billion birds, avian life surged in cities calmed by lockdowns. Up in Maine, thousands of people circled Eastern Egg Rock on packed tour boats, enthralled by the color of the birds, their mannerisms, and the story of why they are here. As I once heard Kress narrate on a tour boat, “Every puffin out here is a miracle.”
Up close on the islands, miracles and jaw-dropping mysteries still abound amid climate chaos. For several years Eastern Egg Rock was home to one of the oldest puffins in the world, a 35-year-old bird that disappeared in 2013. This summer, the Matinicus Rock team grubbed a 32-year-old puffin — one of the original birds in Project Puffin, brought down from Newfoundland as a chick and raised on Seal Island. The team also resighted a Leach’s storm petrel banded there 31 years ago.
The miracles include the efforts of the researchers themselves. In one instance this summer on Eastern Egg Rock, researcher Emily Sandly saw a herring gull swoop down to snatch a young tern. She scrambled over treacherous boulders to harass the gull into dropping the tern, which flew to safety. That rescue is part of the of the periodic capturing or shooing away a host of predators for chicks and eggs, such as great horned owls, black-crowned night-herons, peregrine falcons, even mallard ducks.
They are protecting the birds in the face of the nation’s wild inconsistency in protecting wildlife or fighting climate change. We are just coming out of four years where the Trump administration gutted century-old federal migratory bird rules that held fossil fuel and chemical companies liable for bird deaths from disasters. Even though the Biden administration restored those rules, the U.S. and other rich nations are not yet dealing with the biggest threat yet to all life on Earth, refusing to commit concretely to drastic reductions in fossil fuel burning at COP26.
The researchers can try to physically protect the chicks. But what they really want is for you to listen to their pleas for help. They know they cannot stop what is happening to the birds alone. Our lack of commitment was on gory display this summer on the seabird islands of Maine. For all that Project Puffin and efforts like it have restored, climate change is coming at the birds with the speed of a 19th century plume hunter’s bullet. The next bullet comes for us.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a 10-time award winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, a 2-time winner from the Education Writers Association, a commentary winner from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and co-winner of Columbia University’s Meyer Berger Award.