Every time I see a puffin, the same thought comes to mind: They’re not real, right? They’re too impossibly cute.
For me and for everyone else on the planet, I bet, they seem just too adorable to be of natural origins.
But they are. The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica)—also known as the common puffin—is a species of seabird in the auk family, a group of birds notable for their ability to “fly” underwater as well as in the air. Even though they are excellent swimmers and divers, when puffins walk on land they appear clumsy.
Atlantic puffins are the only puffin native to the Atlantic Ocean; two related species, the tufted puffin and the horned puffin, are found in the northeastern Pacific. The Atlantic puffin breeds in Greenland, Iceland, the state of Maine in the US, Newfoundland, Norway and many North Atlantic islands, including Ireland and those in Scotland.
Atlantic puffins were once driven to near-extinction in the United States by egg collecting for food and hunting. Hunters shot the plump birds for meat and for feathers to fill pillows and adorn women’s hats. Today’s threats come from natural predators and unnatural, human-caused climate change.
While puffin colonies are mostly on small islands where there are no terrestrial predators—such as cats, dogs, foxes, rats, stoats and weasels—adult birds and newly fledged chicks (or “pufflings”) are at risk of attacks from the air by gulls and skuas, which can catch a bird in flight or attack one that is unable to escape fast enough on the ground. When it detects danger, a puffin will take off and fly down to the sea, where other wheeling puffins against a cliff can make it difficult for a predator to concentrate on any one bird. Alternatively, a puffin will retreat into its burrow. If caught, it will defend itself vigorously with its beak and sharp claws.
When out at sea, dangers come from below, and puffins can sometimes be seen putting their heads underwater to peer around for seals and large fish.
But climate change may be the toughest challenge puffins will ever face. Populations of the bird have dramatically declined in the United States and other parts of the world as sea temperatures continue to rise.
Like many migratory birds that have had to shift their way of life, puffins are finding it more difficult to find their major food source, herring. As ocean temperatures warm and fish populations are displaced, mismatches in prey-and-predator relationships increase. Some puffins are relying more heavily on butterfish, which are now more abundant in puffin habitats as they, too, react to changing conditions. Pufflings, however, are not able to swallow these larger fish, and many young birds have starved as a result.
Citing climate change as a key threat when it stated, “This species is highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, such as sea temperature rise and shifts in prey distribution and abundance,” the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed European puffin populations as endangered on its Red List of Threatened Species in 2015.
Researchers have found that puffling survival rates are declining in Maine’s two largest colonies. Rapid habitat destruction and food supply disruption caused by more frequent and extreme ocean conditions—coupled with delayed breeding seasons, low birth rates, high fledgling mortality and unprecedented die-offs—have taken a high toll on puffins.
With all that in mind, take a moment to look at the images below of these cute, charismatic birds, taken in Scotland. While they may look fantastic and imaginary, puffins are very real—as are the climate change threats they face.
I’m hoping that cuteness can be a catalyst for climate-change change.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,