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.
“I’m anxious to see how the carpets are working out,” he says on a trip to Egg Rock. Four interns live all summer on the island, guarding the nests of puffins, common terns, Arctic terns, laughing gulls, and storm petrels. Fast-growing mustard weeds threaten the tern nests (“Terns can’t find their chicks in it,” he explains), so Kress laid down a few strips of rock-colored carpet to prevent the vegetation from growing. He wants to see if the terns can successfully nest on the artificial surface.
That kind of ingenuity has marked Project Puffin from its beginnings. The puffin recovery story is often told as a tale of unqualified success. But as Kress unspools the details of his 40-year career, it’s apparent that acceptance of his approach was hard won—born of Kress’s ability to push against the norm and exercise the courage to fail, learn, fail again, and ultimately succeed. Over the years his example has fostered a robust culture of debate and trial and error.
“The autonomy we have to exercise scientific thought and try new ideas—that’s what keeps us coming back,” says Emily Pollom. For the past two summers Pollom, a 27-year-old biologist, has co-managed common, Arctic, and least tern colonies with her fiancé, biologist John Gorey, 29, on Stratton Island, also off the Maine coast. “If I call in [to the Project Puffin office in Bremen, Maine] and say to Steve or Paula Shannon, the seabird sanctuary manager, ‘Hey, we’ve noticed the common terns like to do this with the tidal wrack. What if we put some wrack on the carpets?’, they’ll think it over and say, ‘Sure, give it a try.’ ”
It’s hard to imagine, but 40 years ago conventional wisdom held that seabirds shouldn’t be helped at all.
In the early 1970s the ruling theory held that humans should let nature take its course. If that meant scavengers like gulls and raccoons crowded out other species, then so be it.
“I didn’t buy that,” Kress recalls.
The problem was, humans had already interfered and tilted the playing field. Herring and black-backed gulls had taken over islands like Egg Rock because fishermen and hunters had killed all the puffins and terns. Gulls flourished by fattening up on lobster bait and open-air garbage dumps, not because they were winning any “balance of nature” battle.
Ornithologists knew that puffins breed at the same sites where they are raised, and that the young alcids go to sea for two to three years before returning to their fledging grounds to mate. Kress’s plan was to move 10-day-old chicks from Great Island, Newfoundland—then host to more than 160,000 Fratercula
arctica nests—to Egg Rock before they imprinted on the Canadian island. The homing instinct is strong in puffins and many other seabirds. Once they fledge, it’s difficult to convince them to nest anywhere other than their natal grounds. Translocating adults wouldn’t do any good—no matter how desirable the new habitat, they’d always fly back to their birth site.