What Is Causing Maine’s Puffins To Physically Shrink?
The ocean islands off the coast of Maine are home to the Atlantic puffin, a peculiar and charismatic bird. This cold-weather species loves to hang out on rocky shores, chomping down on little fish.
But like many species, these puffins are threatened by climate change. Rapid warming in the Gulf of Maine has changed the food available in their habitat, creating a bizarre problem of “micro-puffins”: members of the species 40 to 50% smaller than normal, due to malnutrition.
Joining guest host John Dankosky to discuss the long history of oscillating puffin populations, and what’s being done to get them back to a healthy size, is Fred Bever, reporter at Maine Public Radio in Portland, Maine.
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Fred Bever is a reporter at the New England News Collaborative and Maine Public Radio News in Portland, Maine.
JOHN DANKOSKY: The ocean islands off of the coast of Maine are home to a peculiar and charismatic bird, the Atlantic puffin. This cold weather species loves to hang out on rocky shores, chomping down on little fish. But like many creatures, they’re threatened by climate change. The puffins and their plight are the subject of a new video from Science Friday, which can be seen at sciencefriday.com/puffins. Joining me now to talk about how Maine’s puffin population has changed is my guest. Fred Bever is a reporter for Maine Public Radio. He’s based in Portland, Maine. Fred, welcome back to Science Friday.
FRED BEVER: Good to be here, John.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Now, Fred, you’ve been doing reporting on Maine’s puffin population for many years. How is it doing? How are the puffins doing right now?
FRED BEVER: It’s up and down, John. Recent history of Atlantic puffins in US waters is this amazing seesaw drama of decline, recovery, and now new perils brought by climate change. Maine has always been at the southern edge of their range. And in the 1800s, sailors looking for food and feathers pretty much wiped them out of the Gulf of Maine. And the islands became these semi-barren, mostly uninhabited outposts.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So no people, but there are still puffins there. So the puffins must have come back.
FRED BEVER: Yes, and volunteers. They came back thanks to this guy named Stephen Kress. He’s this soft-spoken ornithologist with the Audubon Society. And back in the ’70s, he had this idea that he could re-establish the birds off Maine’s coast by relocating hatchlings from Canada’s Maritime provinces, where the puffin population is still pretty robust. Kress and volunteers provided handmade nesting burrows. They set up decoys. They broadcast recorded bird calls up into the air, all in an effort to tempt the puffins to nest back here once they matured.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And this all worked.
FRED BEVER: It worked. In peak years, more than 400 are nesting on Eastern Egg Rock. That’s the island highlighted in the new SciFri video. And a few thousand more have established colonies and other US islands as well. And 10 other bird species that had abandoned the islands, including the endangered roseate tern, they followed the puffins to the islands. Puffins are pretty quiet birds. They don’t make much noise outside of their burrows. But the other birds, they more than make up for that.
JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m talking with Fred Bever about the plight of the Atlantic puffin. And we’ve talked on the program about this food web and the Gulf of Maine, how it’s warming faster than almost any other body of water.
FRED BEVER: Yeah, that’s right. It is due to its underwater topology, and water currents and climate change was changing all of those dynamics. I think of it is kind of a test lab for what the rest of the world’s oceans are about to go through. It’s so dynamic, with southerly species making new inroads in the Gulf, more northerly species, numbers dropping off, then a return to normalcy, and the last decade saw a series of what scientists are calling marine heat waves, which have proven to be really, really disruptive.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So how did that big heat wave in 2012 affect the puffins?
FRED BEVER: It was a very bad year for the puffins, 2012. They’re forage feeders. They’re dependent on small schooling fish like herring to nourish themselves and their young. And in the summer nesting season of 2012, the herring pretty much did not show up.
And other potential prey fish did, including butterfish– that’s a more southerly species we usually don’t see much around here. The problem is they have this kind of wide saucer shaped profile that the chicks can’t get down their gullets, so a lot of them starved. And that was the case with other puffin colonies in the area as well. That winter, the waters continued to be warm, and the trend continued.
JOHN DANKOSKY: There were other effects of this heat wave, though, I can imagine.
FRED BEVER: 2012 kind of upended the entire coastal ecosystem around here. That was the year that saw the collapse of a prized local shrimp fishery– Maine shrimp, a Northern Atlantic species that, like the puffins, is at the southern extreme of its range here. Recent science suggests that warmer waters encouraged an incursion of long fin squid from the Rhode Island area, voracious shrimp eaters that, like butterfish, are usually seen more in the south.
And with several more heat waves since then, we’ve seen a drop off in the abundance of a tiny crustacean. It’s called Calanus finmarchicus. It’s the favorite prey of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Many of the whales have been heading up to Canadian waters to forage instead. That’s a change in habit which may have contributed to more of them getting hit by ships north of the border.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Wow, so how have the puffins been doing since that heat wave we’ve been talking about that’s now almost 10 years on?
FRED BEVER: They’ve had some better and worse years since, but the trend could be pretty disheartening, particularly for the scientists and volunteers who work closely with them, like Linda Welch. She’s a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist I spoke with after the most recent nesting season.
LINDA WELCH: Many of the chicks that we classified as fledging, reaching the age where they leave their burrow and go to sea, the birds were 40% to 50% smaller than we normally see. And I’ve never seen that before. We were calling them micro puffins.
FRED BEVER: That’s a new word in the vocabulary– micro puffins. She’s never seen so many emaciated young birds. On one of the islands, barely 10% of the nesting adults managed to raise a chick to the fledging stage. In normal years, it’s more like 75%. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that puffins are quite long-lived. They can lay eggs and raise chicks into their 30s. That’s what keeps Donald Lyons– he’s the new director of Audubon’s Project Puffin– on a more optimistic track.
DONALD LYONS: We actually had in hand this summer one of the original puffins that was brought down from Newfoundland. That bird is now 32 years old. Every puffin that gets out there that reaches adulthood is kind of an insurance policy for the next two or three decades.
FRED BEVER: Lyons thinks fisheries policy and management can help, too. And he told me something else I thought was really cool, John. He sees the puffins as kind of unparalleled field researchers. They head out to sea every day and bring back to the scientist a constant stream of samples. It’s now decades of data that are documenting a time of enormous change in our oceans.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Fred Bever has been charting that change for Maine Public Radio in Portland, Maine. Fred, thanks so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.
FRED BEVER: My pleasure, John.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And if you want to watch a video about some of the work being done to conserve these charming little birds, go to sciencefriday.com/puffins.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.