Puffins: Harbingers of Climate Change


These small ocean birds are the proverbial canary in the coal mine as the ecology of their habitat worsens.

November 5, 2018

This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Audrey Holstead watched a puffin rocket in from the ocean with a beak dripping with fish. It zoomed over boulders in front of her bird blind and dropped with pinpoint accuracy into a narrow, dark crevice.

Holstead’s skin crawled with electricity. Puffins come ashore with fish for only one reason: to feed a chick. This was the first feeding of the season observed at this particular hole. It belonged to the 173rd breeding pair of Atlantic puffins on Eastern Egg Rock, an island six miles off Pemaquid Point on Maine’s midcoast. That set a new record for the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, one of the world’s most famous bird restoration efforts. The season finished with 178 breeding pairs.

“I just wanted to jump up and down and scream to the world,” Holstead says. “I did a little wiggly dance.”

Holstead’s victory jig was one of several in the 45th summer of the project founded by Steve Kress, National Audubon Society’s executive director of seabird restoration and vice president for bird conservation. I was his co-author and photographer on the 2015 book Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.

For nearly a century, the island went without puffins, eliminated by the 1880s by coastal dwellers hungry for the birds’ meat and eggs. Kress dreamed of bringing them back while teaching about birds at Audubon’s Hog Island summer camp up the Muscongus Bay coast from Pemaquid Point.

The only problem was that no seabird had ever been restored to an island where people killed it off.

In 1973, Kress convinced the Canadian government to let him translocate puffin chicks from 800 miles away in Newfoundland. Kress and colleagues fed fish to chicks in handmade sod burrows on Egg Rock until they fledged. The team then set up decoys and mirrors to make the birds perceive abundance when they returned as adults to breed.

Kress hoped the chicks would return to Egg Rock rather than Newfoundland. He guessed right. The first puffins returned in 1977 and began breeding in 1981. Today, 1,300 pairs of puffins breed on five islands in the state, most of the birds being managed in a partnership between Project Puffin and the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The bird now fuels the local economy with boat tours all along the coast.

Derrick Z. Jackson

As warming waters move their ranges northward, butterfish (above) have begun to replace herring and other more appropriate fish as food sources. Unfortunately, the butterfish’s oval shape makes it difficult for puffin chicks to swallow, causing many to starve.

The techniques used to bring back puffins have been used to re-establish or relocate 65 species of seabirds in 17 countries. A spectacular example is the 1996 return of the common murre, an auk cousin of the puffin, to Devil’s Slide rock, a 900-feet-high coastal sea stack south of San Francisco. The rock’s colony of 3,000 murre was wiped out by a massive oil spill in 1986.

After a barren decade, a team of climbers advised by Kress and now-longtime Project Puffin colleague Sue “Seabird Sue” Schubel, scaled the rock to install decoys, mirrors, and solar-powered soundtracks. A murre landed the very next day. Breeding occurred that year and the colony today is again 3,000 birds.

The murre success came back full circle this year to Maine. That bird was also wiped out in the state in the late 19th century. Inspired by Devil’s Slide, Project Puffin started trying to bring murres back to the island of Matinicus Rock. This summer, researchers discovered four healthy murre chicks under boulders.

For Kress, 72, seeing this bird was as close as he could come to welcoming back the similar-looking, twice-as-tall great auk, which was driven to extinction in the mid-1800s.

“When the murres came back to Devil’s Slide, the lead person of that project, Harry Carter, gave me a cigar and said, ‘Keep this until murres return to Maine,’” Kress says. “I still have that cigar. Now I’ll have to light it up with Seabird Sue.”

Kress says the murre chicks are proof that his project is still “reaping rewards of work done over long decades. We can bring back whole communities. It’s wild and exciting to be on the forefront of restoration. The murres show us that momentum is still rolling in the right direction.”


EVEN AS MAINE’S PUFFINS and murres make history, a malicious momentum is rolling in from the wrong direction to fog the future. Project Puffin is in the giant Gulf of Maine, which extends up from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. The gulf is unique for its swirl of the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream. The diversity of water has allowed for a wide range both of birds at the southern end of their North American breeding limits, like puffins and Arctic terns, and birds at the northern end of their nesting range, such as species of herons, ibises, and oystercatchers.

But climate change is making those currents go haywire, warming the Gulf of Maine faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. The Labrador Current is being disrupted by freshwater runoff from warming and melting Greenland ice sheets, the Gulf Stream is pushing northward, and warmer air in the jet stream is transferring more heat into the ocean as it flows off the East Coast.

To understand how fast that change is occurring, Andrew Thomas, professor of oceanography at the University of Maine, puts it like this: The duration of summer-like sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine is extending by about two days every year.

Today, the duration of summer temperatures is two months longer than it was 35 years ago.

“It is a head-scratching number,” Thomas says. “It’s a perfect storm of perfect impacts. When I first saw the numbers, I couldn’t believe it. I did the calculation three more times. I got the same numbers no matter how I plotted it. This is something I never expected.”

Nor did Kress when he started his project. His puffins are now sentinels warning us of what we are doing to our oceans. They tell us via the fish they bring to their chicks.

Take herring, a workhorse forage fish. Whales, sharks, seals, and porpoises eat them underwater. Humans eat them out of cans, grind them into nutritional supplements and pet food, and throw them back in the water for lobster bait.

Young herring are an ideal fish for many seabird species because of their high fat content and streamlined bodies that are easy for chicks to eat. When the first breeding puffin was spotted flying into an Eastern Egg Rock burrow in 1981, the project’s newsletter proudly proclaimed that its beak was “packed full of glistening herring!” A 1985 newsletter said, “This is the puffin’s principal and most nutritious food.”

No more. Herring have virtually disappeared from the puffin diet. Overfishing crashed their commercial population in the late 1970s. Despite federally managed rebuilding of stocks to “robust” status in 2015, the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration still cut the allowable 2018 catch in half over fears of record low numbers of young herring.

The herring that do exist are being driven farther out and deeper into the ocean by warmer water. According to Rutgers University marine biologist Malin Pinsky, the “center of abundance” for Atlantic herring has slipped from 200 feet of ocean depth in the late 1960s to 250 feet today.

“We have to start facing the fact that some fish may not be coming back in range of the birds.”

That begins to fall out of range of a bird whose record diving depth is 200 feet. A 2012 study on Petit Manan Island found that most puffin dives were above 50 feet. “The fish might still be there, but it’s not going to help the birds if the fish go down too deep,” says Linda Welch, who has worked as a biologist for two decades at the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which manages Petit Manan. “We have to start facing the fact that some fish may not be coming back in range of the birds.”

Other iconic New England species show similar trends. Pinsky says the core abundance of lobster has moved north 155 miles since the early 1970s and yellowtail flounder have moved north 145 miles since the 1960s.

Fish more associated with mid-Atlantic waters, such as black sea bass, are showing up in bigger numbers in the Gulf of Maine as their core population has moved up from the latitude of Virginia Beach to that of Trenton, New Jersey. Red hake have moved up from the latitude of Trenton to that of Boston.

“It’s like shaking a snow globe and waiting to see how things settle down,” says Pinsky. “And it may not settle down unless we get our greenhouse gases down.”

To view these shifts in another way with another animal, it’s as if in just one human lifetime, the northern range of the American alligator had moved up from the swamps of northernmost North Carolina to hailing distance of the Washington, D.C., suburbs (this might be a particularly appropriate analogy, given how America is mired in the swamp of political inaction on climate change).

“We’ve flipped into a new, disturbing phase, an alarming new normal,” says Janet Nye, a professor of marine and atmospheric sciences at Stony Brook University. She was a member of a groundbreaking 2015 study that determined that the continued collapse of New England’s iconic cod fishery was significantly due to overfishing and the failure of commercial catch limits to account for the effect of ocean warming on cod.

“What’s really interesting is that no one yet has taken a hard look at the interactions between different species,” she adds. “We’ve typically taken a look at one species at a time to see how temperature change alters their range and distribution. The next step is trying to understand how that affects how species interact with each other.”


SEABIRDS AND FISH ARE rapidly helping us to understand that interaction, and sometimes tell us stories of government success. In recent years, puffins on some islands have brought to their chicks large numbers of small haddock and Acadian redfish, species that rebounded with federal regulation. A 2017 NOAA report said haddock, a cousin of cod, “is currently at an all-time high.”

Derrick Z. Jackson

Solar-powered soundtracks, mirrors, and decoys (shown above) have been used over the years by Steve Kress and his team to lure puffins to nest on Eastern Egg Rock.

But with water temperatures soaring to all-time highs, redfish and haddock are two of the fish projected to decline in the Gulf of Maine, according to a study last year led by Kristin Kleisner, a former NOAA researcher who is now a senior ocean scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. That study also found that white hake, the top replacement of herring for Maine puffins, will also decline in abundance as the gulf’s surface waters may warm by another six or seven degrees this century.

“A huge question is which species can co-exist with each other in a new area,” Kleisner says. “There are definitely fish that will leave the Gulf of Maine or not recover. It may not be all doom and gloom if there are other fish that move in that are still nutritious. But puffins are in a hot spot. They may or may not adapt.”

How hot is this spot for puffins? In 2012, the Gulf of Maine had its warmest waters on record. The 2012 summer temperature was 3.7 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages. Less than a four-degree difference means little to humans who can shed clothes. For fish, four degrees is like being forced to wear a parka on Miami Beach.

As the puffins’ familiar fish “shed clothes” by fleeing for colder water, fish are showing up in their diet that are “shedding” the waters to the south. One is the butterfish, whose core population has moved just since 2004 from the latitude of central Virginia to the latitude of central New Jersey.

Large butterfish are a plague to puffins, especially if they arrive early in the season when their oval shape makes it difficult for newly hatched chicks to eat, causing many to starve. The upward push of butterfish coincided with the 2012 heat and was a major challenge for puffins. Petit Manan saw its breeding puffin count crash from 104 pairs in 2009 to 47 pairs by 2013. Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge and Matinicus Rock, each of which is home to more than 500 pairs of puffins, fledged only one out of every ten chicks in 2013, a record low.

Since then, there have been years of slightly cooler water and breeding success for puffins. Last year, Egg Rock hit 172 pairs of puffins. Seal and Matinicus fledged four out of every five chicks.

But the summer of 2018 was a maddening rollercoaster of the best and the worst things that could happen for puffins. The season started fine with ample haddock and white hake. Puffins began breeding in their record numbers.

Then, a July ocean heat wave sent the water to near-2012 levels. Haddock and hake largely disappeared at Eastern Egg Rock. Butterfish started showing up. On Matinicus Rock, supervisor Frank Mayer said he saw 25 to 30 chicks dead of starvation in an 85-nest study area. On Seal Island, supervisor Keenan Yakola found seven dead chicks in 60 study burrows, surrounded by rotting whole butterfish. Surviving chicks were dramatically underweight.

“What scares me is what we don’t know,” said Yakola, a graduate fellow at the Interior Department’s Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This was his fourth year as Seal supervisor. “Are water temperatures causing mismatches in spawning and [in] when the fish are available to seabirds?

If herring are gone and hake decline, what comes next?

If herring are gone and hake decline, what comes next? We’ve had big butterfish years in the past but now the frequency of butterfish years when little else is present is concerning. In 2016 and 2018, we saw the number of feedings declining, some days we saw no feeding, possibly because the adults have to spend hours looking for food.”

Yakola’s graduate adviser and climate coordinator at the climate center, Michelle Staudinger, says she saw on Seal Island the surreal sight of puffins and terns bringing in goosefish. Otherwise known as monkfish, the fish is often considered one of the ugliest in the sea, with a body that is almost all head and mouth. “That was shocking,” Staudinger says. “What is a bird doing eating that? Why is a bird bringing that in? Seabirds like fish they can slurp down like spaghetti. This is like trying to eat a hamburger in one bite.”

Puffin chicks were in such poor condition by late July that Eastern Egg Rock intern Kay Garlick-Ott, a 22-year-old graduate of Pomona College, said, “You can actually feel the lack of food in the bird. You expect your fingers to hit something like bones, but it was just a puffball. When I pulled it out of its burrow, I knew it wasn’t right. It was so sad.”

But in yet one more twist, there was a last-minute reprieve for puffin chicks that clung to life in Maine. By the second week in August, a time when most chicks normally would have fledged, parents found a surprise final wave of hake and haddock to feed offspring, bringing home as many as 18 feedings a day. The chicks, sensing they needed the food to survive their first winter, stayed in their burrows an unprecedented full month longer than normal to fatten up. Just before Labor Day, there were at least 20 chicks still in burrows on Seal Island. On Eastern Egg Rock, Kress observed a puffin feeding on September 6, a date by which the birds have usually vacated for the winter.

“I’ve never seen a year that started out promising, then turned troubling with butterfish and very few feedings per day, and then reversed with many feedings per day,” Kress says. “It’s kind of symbolic for the last several years. It adds to the idea that it’s a roll of the dice as to how this unfolds. I was very impressed with the puffins’ ability to come up with the strategy of slow development. But we’ve never seen such slow development that then reversed itself to faster development.”

Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which found that the 2018 waters reached their second-highest recorded temperature of nearly 69 degrees Fahrenheit on August 8, says Americans are further gambling with the future with the deterioration of data. He says prior and proposed federal research cutbacks are curtailing or ending studies of plankton abundance, the foundation of marine life, and letting aging weather buoys fall into disrepair.

“Thank goodness we can observe what’s happening to seabirds,” Pershing says. “But it’s getting harder and harder to study what drives those changes. Without hard data, it’s hard to get ahead of what the gulf will look like.”

Tony Diamond, emeritus professor of wildlife ecology at the University of New Brunswick and one of Kress’s longtime colleagues, is not sure how much stress the puffins can take before they take some sort of leave. When Kress first asked the Canadian government for chicks, top wildlife officials at first refused, postulating that at the first sign of ecosystem stress, the birds would retreat back over the border and make the experiment a waste of time.

Nearly a half-century later, the fear of retreat or worse is not just in Maine but also in the Atlantic puffin’s strongholds of Iceland, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Similar environmental scenarios are so worrisome that the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List changed the bird’s status from one of “least concern” to “vulnerable” in 2015.

Canada’s top home for puffins in the Gulf of Maine, Machias Seal Island, has 5,500 pairs, and Diamond fears for them as well. Its own roulette of fish crashes has resulted in puffins going from fledging two out of every three chicks from 1995 to 2005 to only every other one ever since.

“The puffins are a hardy bird [capable of living into their 30s], and they can handle a few bad years,” Diamond says. “But now things are hitting us at a time scale we’ve never known. We used to kill birds for feathers and meat. We stopped that a century ago with management, and the birds came back. Now we’re causing them to die again to support our lifestyles in a new way. They’ve become collateral damage for our consumption.

“Unless we do something drastic for the fish, I fear there won’t be much work for a puffin researcher in the Gulf of Maine 50 years from now.”

That’s not what today’s puffin researchers want to hear. Kress has long entrusted his islands to members of the next generation, for them to spend hours observing in the blinds, to contort themselves upside down to reach down into boulders to band chicks, and occasionally rush outside to get rid of puffin and tern predators such as gulls, eagles, and falcons overhead or mink and otter that swim from island to island.

Besides Holstead and Garlick-Ott, the Egg Rock crew when I visited in July included Laura Brazier, a 27-year-old graduate of Loyola University in Maryland with a wildlife conservation master’s degree from University College Dublin; Nicole Faber, 24, a graduate of Bowdoin College; and Blanca Gonzalez, 29, a graduate of the Autonomous University of Madrid with a master’s in animal behavior from Cordoba University.

They contrasted the struggle for the puffins and terns to find the right fish with all the concern people show for pandas, whales, the 2015 killing of Cecil the lion, and even conservation efforts for lobsters. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the University of Maine, and NOAA found that conservation efforts established by the lobster industry can maintain a stable industry in the face of climate change, averting the collapse that hit southeastern New England.

Derrick Z. Jackson

Steve Kress and his team on the coast of Maine

“It was devastating when the switch to butterfish occurred,” Faber says. “The worst is watching a tern chick trying to stretch its mouth, get the fish halfway down. You see this great lump in their neck. Then when they realize they can’t get it down, they hack it out on the ground. Then they try it over and over and the fish just gets covered in sticks and dirt. It’s horrible. It’s something I didn’t expect when I was told I’d be studying fish.”

Holstead recalled another tern chick that kept rejecting a butterfish and its parent picking it up over and over again to keep trying to feed it. “I’m sitting in the blind mentally screaming to myself, ‘Drop the stupid thing! Go find something else! You want your chick to die!?’ I wince every time I see it.”

Brazier was spending her fourth summer on Project Puffin and her second as Egg Rock supervisor. She has traveled the world to assist the conservation of penguins in South Africa, turtles in Greece, hares in the Yukon, and albatrosses on Midway Atoll. This winter, she is headed to Antarctica for penguin research.

For all that travel for creatures that inspire movies like March of the Penguins or books like Carl Safina’s Voyage of the Turtle and Eye of the Albatross, Brazier has spent the last four summers realizing that a puffin is only as beautiful as the oily fish it eats.

“When I see puffins fly into the burrow with butterfish, I think, ‘Puffin, stop!’” Brazier says. “But we can’t make them stop and they don’t seem to have the ability to realize what they’re catching. Last year was so insanely good. This year, as the summer deteriorated, puffins were loafing less, probably because they had less time to hang around and needed more time to find fish. You just wonder sometimes when their energy is going to run out.”


ONE THING THAT WILL NOT run out is the energy of the interns. Just as Kress returned the puffin to Maine against many odds to heal an environmental wound of the 19th century, the interns say this summer’s difficulties make them that much more dedicated not to let 21st-century problems reopen those wounds. They are quite clear that Project Puffin’s efforts are being hurt by President Trump’s and the Republican Congress’s attempted gutting of environmental protections. Many of those protections, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, were enacted in the 1970s, just as Kress began bringing puffins back.

The administration is also trying to allow commercial fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, 130 miles off Cape Cod. President Obama gave this region permanent protection because it has canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and many previously unknown species of deep-sea corals. It also is a prime feeding area for whales, turtles, and late-winter puffins that fatten up here before migrating to Maine to breed.

From this seven-acre rock, the interns are fighting back by giving people a more vivid picture of what the puffin faces.

“We can transfer anger against Trump into something positive,” Gonzalez says. “We know conservation science is not a field to get rich and famous. But we have passion.”

The question, of course, is when society will feel and honor this passion with a movement to prevent rollbacks of existing environmental laws and reverse the long-term threat to puffins, fish, and humans—climate change.

“The political environment makes me really appreciate everyone who is working out here,” Faber says. “It’s so easy to feel totally devastated and crushed by a government that wants to pollute everything again. We have to keep the resolve to not let it happen.”

Brazier, the veteran of the group, says: “Sometimes I wonder what we’re doing out here in the grand scheme of things. What is the part that five people on this tiny island do to save the planet? So many people out there are complacent and I know not everybody is going to care about the fish.

“But I have to remember that none of what we’re seeing out here was here when the project started. That’s how I stay hopeful.”

As long as they have hope, so do the puffins.

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