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.

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.