Bird-watching: How puffins can turn people into environmentalists.

How Puffins Can Turn People Into Environmentalists

How Puffins Can Turn People Into Environmentalists

Stories from OnEarth, a Survival Guide for the Planet
Aug. 17 2013 8:30 AM

For the Birds

Everybody’s individual path to environmental consciousness is different. Curious, though, how many of them turn out to be flight paths.

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I think of my friend Freddy Santana Rodriguez, whom I met when I followed ospreys that were migrating down through Cuba. As a young man Freddy took deep pleasure in the vast and varied bird life of his home island. His life changed one day in 1996, when he discovered a dead male osprey with a band on his leg in the area near his home in Santiago de Cuba. Through the information on the osprey’s band, Rodriguez got in touch with Keith Bildstein, the director of conservation science at Hawk Mountain, a Pennsylvania site well-known among observers of raptor migration. Freddy’s find would lead to his becoming the first Cuban intern at Hawk Mountain; when he returned to his home country, he would go on to establish a site for observing migrating ospreys on la Gran Piedra, a rock outcropping in eastern Cuba’s Sierra Maestre mountain range.

From the day he discovered that osprey, Freddy tied his own life to that of the birds he loved. He has told me that some of his happiest moments have been watching the annual migration of ospreys through the mountains each fall, shining overhead like a suspended black-and-white river. Naturally, as he spent more time with them, Freddy began wanting not merely to study but to protect these birds—to educate his countrymen about them, to speak out against hunting and the destruction of those natural places in Cuba that serve as pit stops on the birds’ migratory route.

But for Freddy, the activism came later. First, he told me, there was just the joy of seeing these wild, beautiful creatures in flight.


Which brings me, finally, back to puffins. To see them and know them a little is to feel pain at the idea that they’re in peril. As the Associated Press’s Clarke Canfield wrote in the article I mention earlier, Atlantic puffins have been “dying of starvation and losing body weight, possibly because of shifting fish populations as ocean temperatures rise, according to scientists.” Canfield goes on to note that “[d]ozens of emaciated birds were found washed ashore in Massachusetts and Bermuda this past winter, likely victims of starvation.” Puffins have always fed their young herring, but with that population of fish dwindling, puffin parents have tried to substitute butterfish, which their young can’t seem to swallow.

With a little digging, I uncovered the name of Steve Kress, who is the puffin man for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I was joking earlier when I wrote about the Pro Puffin League and the Puffin Power March—but it turns out I wasn’t far off. Under Steve’s guidance, the National Audubon Society started Project Puffin back in 1973, in an effort to learn how puffins might be restored to their historic nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine. Since then, Steve has centered his life on learning about and protecting this little bird that, to non-birders, looks like a tiny squeak-toy penguin. When I wrote to ask him how this had come to pass, here’s how he responded:

“In brief, my first bird experience was with a flicker. Mine was feeding on the lawn outside my 4th grade classroom. My teacher challenged the group to identify it. I pawed through a copy of the Golden Guide to Birds and found the bird, based on its white rump and habits. This was an “eye-opener”—and I suspect you will find that most ornithologists today can trace their beginning passion to such a one-on-one experience. This led to my interest in joining a local kids naturalist club at the Columbus, Ohio, metro parks. The metro parks were allied with the Columbus Audubon Society, and this led me to the Audubon summer camps.”

One important thing to note is that the passion that turned into Steve’s career began with fun—with his teacher making a game out of it. Another is something that he didn’t mention in his e-mail, but that I found on his website: While his interest grew from that initial spark, the interest quickly turned into concern. Steve became upset when he saw the natural habitat in his hometown of Columbus being destroyed for suburbia and shopping malls, and vowed to do something about it.   

That’s how it went for Roger Tory Peterson, how it went for Freddy Rodriguez, how it goes for so many. It starts with loving the birds. And often it ends with fighting for them.

I’ll let Peterson have the last word:

“In my opinion, kids, especially the younger ones, do not start with an ecological concept. They acquire one by using springboards such as birds, plants, or mammals. To expect youngsters to become ‘instant environmentalists’ is presumptuous.  … Feelings must come first, then names of wild things, then where they live, what they do. Concepts follow. …There is no substitute for substance and passion.”