How To Fake a Puffin Society

People who accomplish great things, and how they do it.
Nov. 7 2012 11:57 PM

The Puffin Charmer

By thinking like a social bird, Stephen Kress brought puffins back to the United States.

Puffins stands on a cliff top in Inner Farne, England
Puffins stands on a cliff top in Inner Farne, England

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

First things first: Puffins are adorable. You don’t have to be an animal lover to be charmed by their clownish faces, their waddling walk, and their chubby-dumpling bodies. Their fluffy chicks make even hardened cynics coo. (Really. They’re irresistible.)  

Every summer on the Maine coast, tourists pile into ferry boats to tour the small, rocky islands where Atlantic puffins nest. As they ogle the birds through binoculars, they hear that puffins are not only cute but also tough: Though wobbly on land, puffins can dive down 200 feet underwater, and they swim so expertly that people once believed them to be a cross between a bird and a fish. Adult puffins return to their home islands every summer to breed and carefully tend a single chick, often pairing with the same mate year after year. Never underestimate a puffin.

But Atlantic puffins were once driven to near-extinction in the United States by hunting and egg collecting. The busy colonies off the Maine coast today are the result of a long-running restoration project. It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to turn a heretical idea into the noisy, messy, thriving reality of the Maine puffin colonies—and it takes even more work to keep that reality in place.

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In 1969, a young biologist and birding enthusiast named Stephen Kress moved to Maine to teach at the Hog Island Audubon Camp on the coast. He learned that puffins had once been common on the coastal islands but had been hunted relentlessly. By 1901, a single pair was left in the state, and only a few pairs had been seen since. Unlike many people in Maine at the time, Kress had a visceral sense of what had been lost: He had recently worked in eastern Canada, which has some of the largest puffin colonies in the world. He started to wonder if Atlantic puffin chicks could be transplanted from Canada to Maine and used to re-establish the population south of the border.

More experienced seabird biologists shook their heads. Puffins, like many seabirds, return to their natal islands to breed. If puffin chicks were transplanted to new islands, they wouldn’t breed there; they would simply head back to the islands where they’d been born. The biologists said Kress’ notion was an idealistic waste of time or, worse, an arrogant effort to manipulate nature.

Watch: Stephen Kress on the origins and success of Project Puffin

Instead of giving up, Kress stopped wondering and started making plans. “Even though some of these people were the authorities at the time, I just didn’t think they were correct,” he says. From what he knew about puffins and their life cycle, he had a hunch that the birds could be encouraged to breed in their new locations. And in an odd way, he says, his critics were one of his greatest inspirations—he became determined to prove them wrong.

In 1973, Kress and a small group of colleagues went to a puffin breeding colony in Newfoundland. They braved angry puffin parents (puffin beaks can deliver a nasty nip) to collect a half-dozen chicks. They transported the two-week-old birds back to Eastern Egg Rock, a former puffin colony about 8 miles off the Maine coast. Kress and his colleagues installed the puffins in artificial burrows built of grass and sod, and then became puffin nannies, hand-feeding the baby birds regular meals of vitamin-enriched fish. By the end of the summer, the puffins had grown big enough to fledge, and one by one, they left their burrows to splash into the sea. Kress hoped that in a few years, the birds would return, as adults, and dig their own burrows at Eastern Egg Rock.

For the next few years, Kress would sit stock-still behind binoculars for hours at a time, watching for returning puffins. With no sign of them, he decided it was time for a puffin hack. He tried to think like a puffin: What would make Eastern Egg Rock a more attractive neighborhood? Seabirds are social creatures—the chatter of a seabird colony is loud enough to drown out human conversation—so Kress placed some wooden puffin decoys on the island, carefully clustered in groups as if absorbed in conversation. In 1977, a curious puffin landed in the water near the island, but still, no puffins came ashore.

Finally, on July 4, 1981, Kress spotted a puffin carrying fish into a pile of rocks on the island; after a few moments, it emerged with an empty beak. The transplanted puffins were back, and they were nesting on Eastern Egg Rock. It had taken many cold, sleepless nights, not to mention a high tolerance for being crapped on by a variety of outraged seabirds. But after nearly a decade, Kress had proved that he could lure puffins to new breeding grounds.