Summer loafing may be almost over for the once-endangered puffin, the colorful, comic bird that looks like a scaled-down version of Napoleon in a tuxedo.
A group of scientists wants to put the birds to work, monitoring their movements in the hope it will shed light on populations and movement of fish puffins eat, particularly sensitive stocks of herring.
“If the idea gets off the ground, it’ll be one of the first times sea birds have been used successfully as any kind of monitor of food supplies,” said Stephen Kress, director of Project Puffin, a joint venture by the Audubon Society and the Canadian Wildlife Service.
Abundant Until Late 1800s
The puffins were abundant on Maine’s coastal rocks and islands until the late 1800s when their numbers were depleted by residents who raided their nests for eggs and killed the birds for their feathers.
For Project Puffin, the birds have been imported from Newfoundland and re-established on Eastern Egg Rock, a seven-acre island eight miles off the Maine coast, and on two other Down East islands.
“They’re there on their own, they’ve come back on their own, they’re breeding on their own and they’re fledging their chicks,” said Kress. There are at least 18 pairs on the island this year, he said.
‘Dynamics of Herring’
“Puffins in this part of Maine feed almost exclusively on small herring, a commercially important food,” Kress said. “Very little is known about the population dynamics of herring, yet it’s a multimillion-dollar industry.
“We’re working on developing a system in which puffins can serve as indicators of the amount of food that’s out there by watching them, seeing how much food they’re bringing in, how much time they spend between deliveries.
“If there’s lots of food, puffins will not make as many trips from the island. If the food is far away and there’s not much of it, they’ll spend a lot more time traveling.”
Tracking Birds by Radio
The scientists plan to track the birds by radio and to watch how the chicks grow, Kress said. “Puffins will feed their chicks as much as they catch. In a poor year, there’s not as much food around, and the chicks will suffer and, in some cases, starve. This is what’s been happening in over-fished areas.”
Jean Chenoweth, a marine scientist with the state Marine Resources Department who specializes in herring management, said the department uses spotter planes and other methods to determine herring concentrations.
“The stocks can collapse quickly, due to overfishing,” she said. “We’re interested in the project, certainly. Anything to better enable us to track herring.”
Project Puffin began in 1973 when Kress brought six chicks from Newfoundland to the Audubon Camp in Maine where he is director. Five of the six survived and were freed, proving to Kress that they could be raised by humans.
Puffins were ideal for management because adults raise only one chick in isolated rock burrows each year, he said.