A Crazy Idea to Bring Back Atlantic Puffins Is a Success
Ornithologist Steve Kress’s once-controversial methods are the gold standard for saving seabirds around the world.
Every visit to Eastern Egg Rock Island, six miles off the coast of Maine, is like coming home for Steve Kress, a soft-spoken man of 67. Forty years ago, as a young Audubon bird life instructor, he hatched the idea of reviving the Atlantic puffin colonies that flourished on this seven-acre island before hunters wiped them out in the 1880s. Years of trial and error ultimately led to the reestablishment of puffins—now 2,000 strong on three protected islands, including Egg Rock—and to the creation of Project Puffin, an Audubon program that today manages North Atlantic breeding colonies of American oystercatchers, Arctic terns, and 14 other seabird species, on seven Maine islands.
Maine gave birth to Kress’s ideas, but during the past 30 years the discoveries and techniques pioneered by Project Puffin have driven a new science of seabird restoration and conservation. In that time nearly 60 projects worldwide have used Kress’s “social attraction” techniques to move dozens of seabird populations to safer nesting grounds (see "The Power of Attraction," below). Decoys simulating specific species and amplified birdcalls signal that the new location is desirable and secure. Moving very young chicks from an old colony to a new one can help the birds imprint, encouraging their return to the safer island when it’s time to come in from sea and establish their own broods.
Those strategies have set the standard everywhere. They helped save the Bermuda petrel, whose nests were threatened by storms and rising sea level. Between 2004 and 2008 scientists translocated 105 petrel chicks to a 15-acre wildlife sanctuary on higher ground, and by 2012, 15 pairs were breeding there. On Japan’s Torishima Island, a colony of short-tailed albatrosses, one of the most threatened birds on earth, was nesting on the rim of an active volcano. Using decoys and audio recordings, biologists first lured adults away from the rim, and then moved chicks to a safer nearby island. Comparable projects have built new colonies of diving petrels in New Zealand, double-crested cormorants in Oregon, and Ascension Island frigatebirds in the equatorial South Atlantic.
“There aren’t many of us who can look at our lives and say we made a real difference to the planet,” says Scott Weidensaul, author of the bird migration classic Living on the Wind. “Steve is one of them.”
Four decades after bringing the first puffin chicks to Egg Rock, Kress hasn’t slowed down. Now director of Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, he’s still experimenting with new ideas.