A Feather in Your Cap

The year is 1886, and you’ve just moved from the verdant countryside to the urban sprawl of the big city. Billowing smokestacks have replaced your morning view of the misty mountains, steel monoliths stand in for ancient deciduous trees and the screeching sound of trains on tracks silence bird song.

Though you’ve knowingly traded a life spent in the wilderness for the grandeur of the Gilded Age, you long for the sublimity only nature can provide. And, because you are a woman, you can only experience the wonders of the world through the stories and treasures brought back by male explorers, colonizers and trophy hunters.

In an attempt to satisfy society’s standards, you don a hat embellished with exotic feathers and strut down the streets of Manhattan.

The words of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace echo in your mind: “All the beauty is in the feathers…I almost think a feather is the masterpiece of nature.”

How can you argue with Darwin’s contemporary—the co-founder of evolutionary theory? You flaunt your beauty and your fitness in the hope that a courting suitor will recognize your value.

Easter Parade, New York City, 1911. Courtesy Library of Congress. women's fashion feathered hats plume trade

Easter Parade, New York City, 1911. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Unbeknownst to you, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History, is conducting a feathered hat census in New York City. You are among the 700 women he counts during a two-day observation period. Roughly 40 native bird species, including herons, owls and woodpeckers, were poached, plucked, disassembled and stuffed in the name of fashion.

Though eye-opening, Chapman’s study represented a mere fraction of the staggering death toll associated with the feather trade. In 1886, over 50 North American species were slaughtered for their feathers.

Entire populations of terns, herons, egrets and other shorebirds were decimated all along the Atlantic Coast. In its winter issue, Good Housekeeping reported: “At Cape Cod, 40,000 terns have been killed in one season by a single agent of the hat trade.”

By the end of the 19th century, more than five million birds were killed annually to supply the booming American millinery industry.

In response to the plumage plundering, socialite Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin Minna B. Hall founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1896. The organization’s lobbying resulted in the passage of the 1900 Lacey Act, which prohibited the importation of wildlife that had been harvested against local laws in its country of origin.

Unfortunately, nations that supported the trade continued trafficking exotic species into the United States. On its fateful maiden voyage, the Titanic was carrying more than 40 cases of feathers destined for New York milliners. The crates were insured for over $2.3 million in today’s dollars. In 1912, only diamonds were worth more pound for pound.

Puck magazine illustration, 1911. "The woman behind the gun." Courtesy Library of Congress.

Puck magazine illustration, 1911. “The woman behind the gun.” Courtesy Library of Congress.

In 1918, Mass Audubon’s advocacy laid the groundwork for the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which made it unlawful to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, barter, purchase, or transport any migratory bird, [body] part, nest, or egg” in the U.S. and Britain.

The federal ruling was lifesaving for a plethora of species, but it could not undo the loss suffered by birds in the decades prior. For some species, like the Atlantic puffin, it was too late.

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

Atlantic puffins once flourished on many nesting islands along the Gulf of Maine, but heavy exploitation of eggs, meat and feathers caused their populations to dwindle.

The hunting of terns further impacted puffin survival. Puffins often nest under the protective wing of terns, as they are notorious for fiercely fending off eagles, gulls and other predators from their young.

By the turn of the 20th century, Atlantic puffins had disappeared entirely from the U.S.

two puffins in a burrow

For decades, it seemed as if puffins had been effaced from North America’s collective consciousness. That is, all except for one person named Stephen Kress.

In 1971, Kress was an ornithology graduate student at Cornell University and spent his summers as a wildlife instructor at Hog Island, a coastal field station in Bremen, Maine.

Kress was at the local library when he discovered Maine Birds, written by Smithsonian ornithologist Ralph Palmer. He was shocked to read that Atlantic puffins once bred on a windswept island known as Eastern Egg Rock a mere six miles south, but they had not returned to their natal site since their extirpation nearly a hundred years earlier.

Enraged and inspired, Kress set to work on Project Puffin—his ambitious goal to reestablish a breeding colony. He planned to translocate puffin chicks (called pufflings) from neighboring Canada to Maine, where they would be hand-reared until they were ready to paddle out to sea. A couple of years later, the Canadian Wildlife Service agreed to provide six pufflings from Newfoundland as a pilot project.

Dr. Stephen Kress holding a puffin on eastern egg rock maine

Stephen Kress holding a puffin on Eastern Egg Rock. © Wikimedia Commons

Because puffins float on the open ocean for most of the year and only return to land to breed, Kress had between April and August to make Egg Rock feel like home.

Armed with a crew of Audubon biologists, Kress constructed a series of artificial burrows out of sod and visited the 10-day-old fosters multiple times a day to hand-feed them forage fish. As the pufflings approached fledging age, they received a leg band so the scientists could follow their journey.

From 1973 to 1981, 954 Newfoundland puffin chicks were transplanted to Egg Rock; however, after fledging, none returned to raise offspring of their own.

Kress and his field team observed a few familiar puffins fly by the island. Still, they chose to nest at existing colonies on Matinicus Rock or on Machias Seal Island in Canadian waters instead.

Determined to make Egg Rock more inviting for puffins, Kress added mirrors and hand-painted wooden decoys to his arsenal, unwittingly inventing “social attraction” as a new wildlife management strategy. He rigged four-sided mirror boxes and set them amid the decoys to stimulate scuttlebutt.

The charade was working! Puffins flocked to the mirrors, preening their feathers, pecking at their reflection and cozying up to the glass to rest. But, just as quickly as they appeared, they vanished with the ebbing tides.

gulls in pursuit of an Atlantic puffin carrying sand lance in its beak

Gulls in pursuit of an Atlantic puffin carrying sand lance in its beak.

Kress and his team knew they would have to outsmart the island’s predators for the puffins to stay.

Gulls feed opportunistically on seabirds and their chicks, and without the nuisance of territorial terns to keep the gulls at bay, puffins are left defenseless. Using a combination of recorded tern calls and decoys, the team broadcasted that Egg Rock was suitable for colonization.

In 1980, terns began nesting on Egg Rock for the first time since 1936. Then, in 1981, the first puffling was reared by puffin parents on Egg Rock.

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

The restoration experiment was so successful Project Puffin spread its wings to the Galapagos to make a refuge for the islands’ resident petrels. The team cordoned off rat-free areas and constructed artificial burrows. Within the first year, petrels began to nest and establish new colonies.

Today, 50 years after Project Puffin’s founding, scientists around the world are implementing Kress’ pioneering methods at more than 500 sites, targeting one-third of seabird species. Conservation efforts are supported by Audubon’s Seabird Institute, the proud purveyor of social attraction products, including 45 species of decoys.

Endangered short-tailed albatross decoys helping to establish colonies in Hawaii.

Decoys of the endangered short-tailed albatross helping to establish healthy seabird colonies in Hawaii.

Eastern Egg Rock is now home to a stable colony of puffins and a healthy population of other seabirds, including roseate terns, black guillemots and razorbills. Recent records indicate there are 1,300 breeding pairs of puffins across five Maine islands.

“I hope that Project Puffin inspires people of all ages to learn that individuals can make a real difference for wildlife,” declared the now-retired Dr. Kress in an interview with Yale University Press.

The Seabird Institute continues research efforts on a network of seven islands in the Gulf of Maine. These colonies provide nesting habitat to 100% of Maine’s roseate terns, about 80% of its common terns, 65% of its Arctic terns and nearly half of its least terns.

“It’s not just a conservation story for us here in Maine, even though it’s a great one for locally,” says Don Lyons, director of conservation science at the Seabird Institute. “It’s really a worldwide conservation success story.”

Least tern parents feeding their chick.

Least tern parents feeding their chick.

A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush

Globally, Atlantic puffins number in the millions, but their population is decreasing due to prey scarcity from climate change and overfishing. The species is also vulnerable to oil spills and other forms of marine pollution.

Iceland is home to more than half the planet’s Atlantic puffins, and the country’s Westman Islands harbor the largest colony in the world. In the southern half of the country, warming ocean waters have changed the availability of sand lance (commonly known as “sand eels”), causing almost complete breeding failure each year for more than a decade. Puffin territory has also shrunk due to the invasive American mink, which decimated nearly all the mainland colonies in the 1930s.

For centuries, puffins have been harvested sustainably for human consumption in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, but trophy hunting operations are causing a sharp decline in numbers. Although the Atlantic puffin is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, they receive no protection in Iceland.

Flying Icelandic puffin with beak full of sardine fish

Photographed on Vigur Island in Iceland by Nat Hab Expedition Leader © Eddy Savage. Check out Eddy’s tips for getting the shot in his Good Nature Travel story.

“This is a time for bold stewardship and commitment by government and individuals in the precious commodities of species…We live in the age of human-caused extinction, and inaction will leave a progressively depleted planet for future generations.”Dr. Stephen W. Kress

You can positively impact puffin populations by booking a trip with Natural Habitat Adventures and our travel partner World Wildlife Fund. Search for Atlantic puffins amid the glaciers of East Greenland and photograph Iceland’s colonies on a Photo Pro Expedition, or watch for the tufted and horned puffin species on an Alaska wildlife safari!

You can also support WWF’s global efforts to protect wild animals and their habitats by making a symbolic species adoption.

Thanks for reading, my fine feathered friends!

two puffins, puffin couple