What is a ‘Puffling,’ Anyway?

Puffin populations in Maine are healthy today, but that’s a relatively recent development as we learned from Susie Meadows, 

CREA’s featured speaker at Topsham Public Library in November. Manager of the Project Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland, Susie described the drastic decline of puffins and other seabirds prior to 1918 due to overharvesting – principally for feathers. Project Puffin was started by the National Audubon Society in 1973 as an effort to learn how to restore puffins to historic nesting islands.

It wasn’t until 1981 that puffin pairs started breeding on Eastern Egg Rock, but much was learned about seabird restoration along the way. In 1973, very young puffins were brought from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock. The young age was necessary so the ‘pufflings’ (yes, that’s what juvenile puffins are called!) would imprint on the island and return later to breed. Pufflings were hand-fed in burrows by volunteers for six weeks, then headed to the open ocean for two to three years as is their custom.

When the puffins did not show up to nest on Eastern Egg as hoped for, project leaders tried different tactics to attract them, including mirrors, decoys, and puffin calls, theorizing that they needed to create an environment that was socially appealing. The presence of other puffins signals the presence of food sources and safety in numbers.

In 1981, four puffin pairs successfully raised pufflings on Eastern Egg and the population has since grown to over 150 pairs. Restoration efforts using the same techniques began on Seal Island in 1984 and pairs began breeding there only eight years later. Five hundred pairs now occupy Seal Island.

The social attraction techniques developed in the Puffin Project have since been used to restore seabird populations to locations all over the world, including Terns, Common Murres, Bermuda Petrels, and the Short-Tailed Albatrosses (Japan). Some of these species had been believed extinct, so the techniques developed to restore puffins in Maine proved to be invaluable in restoring other very vulnerable seabird populations.