The Puffin Charmer
By thinking like a social bird, Stephen Kress brought puffins back to the United States.
Still, the job wasn’t done. Predatory gulls kept showing up at Eastern Egg Rock to harass puffins and kill chicks. The gulls are tolerant of humans and tend to multiply as human populations expand, and they’re far more common in Maine than they used to be. Before Kress and his colleagues brought puffin chicks to Eastern Egg Rock, they’d driven off the predatory gulls that had taken up residence there, even shooting a few of the most stubborn birds, but new gulls kept arriving. So Kress went back to work.
This time he tried to deter gulls by attracting terns—small, aggressive seabirds. Terns don’t prey on puffins, and they’re territorial enough to drive off gulls. To lure terns to Eastern Egg Rock, Kress adapted his decoy strategy, this time using tern-shaped decoys and broadcasting recorded tern calls to create the illusion that terns were already nesting there. He attracted breeding terns, and they served as bodyguards for the fledgling puffin population.
Today, Eastern Egg Rock has more than 100 puffin pairs, and Kress’ “social attraction” techniques have been used worldwide to restore seabird populations. To trick birds into nesting in a new place, he and his followers use decoys and recorded calls of the species they’re trying to communicate with. In some cases, they set up mirrors so that curious birds will mistake their own reflections for new companions. These techniques have been used to bring common murres back to a breeding site off the coast of California that was devastated by an oil spill in 1986. They’ve helped move rare Bermuda petrels away from rising sea levels, and restored other seabirds to tiny, remote islands in the South Pacific. At last count, tricks of social attraction have helped restore 49 seabird species in 14 countries, including some extremely endangered bird species. Even some of the biologists who criticized Kress early on have adopted his techniques for their own work. In retrospect, Kress says, he owes a lot to the opposition: The criticism made him think harder, work harder, and plan more carefully, and probably helped him avoid some devastating early mistakes.
Kress, his colleagues, and a rotating crew of interns continue to guard Eastern Egg Rock and its puffins against gulls, and they’ve successfully repopulated other Maine islands with terns and puffins, restoring the historic reach of the Atlantic puffin and, Kress hopes, making the species as a whole more resilient.
One of the islands where Kress and his team work today is Matinicus Rock, where Maine’s single surviving pair of puffins took refuge in 1901. Twenty-two miles from the mainland, thrashed by fierce waves and wind, the island is an isolated, forbidding place. For more than a century, its only human inhabitants were a succession of hardy lighthouse keepers—including Abbie Burgess, a 17-year-old girl who, during the winter of 1856, famously kept the lights burning through a savage storm that trapped her father on the mainland.
Today, the Matinicus Rock light is automated—every few seconds, it sends a deafening hoot out to sea—and puffin project biologists have replaced the lighthouse keepers. The island's puffin population has grown to an estimated 300 pairs. Razorbills, a larger, heavier cousin to the puffin, also nest among the boulders, as do healthy populations of common and Arctic terns.
For years, the biologists here have also tried to attract common murres, another member of the puffin family that once nested on Matinicus Rock. In the summer of 2009, on a narrow rock ledge above the sea, they were delighted to find a single brown-spotted, narrow-tipped egg—the first murre egg found in Maine in more than a century. Four days later, however, they mourned when the egg was eaten by a gull.
But the biologists are still waiting, just as Kress waited for puffins on Eastern Egg Rock. They know restoration takes not only inspiration but also decades of persistence. On the edge of the island, a small army of black-and-white murre decoys stands above a steep cliff, and a recording of murre calls bleats patiently into the wind.
Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing writer for Smithsonian, a contributing editor of High Country News, and a 2011 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow. She lives in rural Colorado.