The Puffin Man

A project that began modestly on a small island in Maine is today helping to save seabirds all over the world.

On this 30th anniversary of Audubon's Project Puffin, memory goes back to a cool, misty July night when Steve Kress landed by boat on a small Maine island at the end of an improbable journey from Newfoundland, carrying a suitcase full of puffins. More precisely, he carried five suitcase-like containers. Each was specifically designed to transport 20 tiny, sooty-gray puffin chicks.

"They're tough little fellows," Kress said to his companions as they unloaded the cases. "They all survived the trip."

Stephen W. Kress, then a young staff ornithologist at the Audubon Camp in Maine, had embarked on what seemed to many wildlife biologists a quixotic venture. His plan was to restore Atlantic puffins to Eastern Egg Rock, at the mouth of Muscongus Bay, where local hunters and fishermen used to slaughter seabirds for food and bait. By the early 1880s the primly plumaged but flamboyantly billed puffins had vanished from the island.

Project Puffin started when Kress and his team got permission from the Canadian Wildlife Service to collect chicks for more than a decade from a large puffin colony in Newfoundland and carry them by plane, truck, and boat to Eastern Egg Rock. There they inserted the chicks in individual burrows prepared beforehand, closed them in with wire barriers, and (as substitute parents) fed them daily on small fish. The hope was that once the puffins were released to the sea, the island's location would be stamped indelibly on the little birds' personal road maps. Then, upon maturity, they might return to the island and establish a breeding colony.

After several years of agonized waiting, wooden puffin decoys, mirrors (put in place to convince the puffins they had company), and other attractants lured a few pioneers. Finally, in 1981, four pairs settled in and produced the first puffin eggs on the island in a century. This year 59 pairs nested at Eastern Egg Rock—some of them 26 years old! (For more information on the project, log on to Project Puffin.)

Kress's vision has materialized far beyond his early expectations, and puffin colonies are flourishing on five islands along the Maine coast, where his techniques have also benefited such birds as common, Arctic, and endangered roseate terns and the Leach's storm petrel. What's more, in recent years, as oil spills, predators, and other hazards have wiped out seabirds around the world, biologists from Bermuda to California and Oregon, and on through various islands and atolls in the remote Pacific Ocean all the way to New Zealand, are using Kress's techniques to good effect.

Kress's approach has broadened in recent years. For instance, the recorded calls of such species as Arctic terns now lure the desired birds away from islands threatened by predators or rising water levels to spots that offer more suitable nesting sites. Kress's team is also bringing its bag of "social attraction" tricks to Bermuda. Triggered perhaps by global warming, rising water there erodes sandstone islets where the very rare Bermuda petrel breeds in burrows. Biologists will put speakers at more secure nesting sites to broadcast petrel calls.

"The idea is to lure the birds away from potential harm," explains Kress, 57. "It's hard to move the older ones—but the young, being flexible, are more likely to change nesting sites." His beloved puffins may need a similar nudge elsewhere if warming trends threaten to flood key colonies or disrupt their prey fish around the northern Atlantic rim. "I'm still concerned about the project's future because I see no end to keeping interns and other staff on the islands to protect the colonies from intrusions by gulls and humans," says Kress, whose soft voice belies a fierce determination. "But our puffin colonies on the Maine coast are increasing by 15 percent to 40 percent a year. And I'm heartened as biologists are using our techniques to help rare seabirds in other parts of the world."