Puffins are instantly recognizable with their large, comical bills and bold colors. These northern Seabirds occur in the north Atlantic and Pacific, where they hunt over the open ocean and nest on cliffs and islands.
Like so many of the world’s birds, Puffins face a variety of threats, and the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) is most at risk. So are these birds endangered?
Puffins are not technically endangered on a global level, although the Atlantic Puffin is classified as vulnerable. Their numbers have improved in some areas due to the efforts of conservationists, but newer threats like climate change and plastic pollution continue to threaten the species.
However, the outlook is more positive around the coast of the United States. The two West Coast species are not classified as threatened, and the Atlantic Puffin of the Northeast coast is recovering after overexploitation around the start of the last century.
Across the ocean, almost 10% of the breeding population nests around the United Kingdom. Their UK conservation status is red, primarily due to their worldwide decline.
This article covers the conservation status and threats that affect Puffins. Read along to learn more about the plight of these adorable seabirds.
On a global scale, Puffins are listed as vulnerable, however, there is certainly cause for concern
Atlantic Puffins may have a wide range, but their breeding colonies are highly localized, which puts them under serious threat from many factors at a local level. Pollution, unsustainable fishing, and other threats affect these birds just about wherever they go during the non-breeding season.
Puffins are naturally slow breeders, which really doesn't help their cause. Pairs raise just a single chick per year, and they don’t start breeding until they are about five years old. This low-reproductive rate makes them vulnerable to significant declines over just one year.
If healthy fish stocks are not available within a close enough distance from the colony, Puffins simply can’t feed their chicks and are forced to abandon the nest.
In Iceland, consistent nesting failures over the past two decades are a major cause for concern. In fact, most European colonies are declining, although some are stable, and some have even increased.
Puffins have a very low reproduction rate, which makes them more vulnerable to decline
None of the three Puffin species are formally classified as endangered at a global level. However, the Atlantic Puffin is classified as vulnerable, which is just one category away.
At a finer scale, these birds are classified differently. Their official status in Europe is Endangered, and in Iceland, the most important nesting area for the species, they are classified as Critically Endangered.
The Horned Puffin and Tufted Puffin are two species that live from the American West Coast and across the northern Pacific to Asia. These beautiful seabirds are considered safe at this time. They are officially classified as ‘Least Concern’ species, although there have been some declines.
Atlantic Puffins are classified in the vulnerable category, just one step away from endangered
Atlantic Puffins were decimated off the coast of North America by hunting and harvesting in the 19th century. Unsustainable collection almost wiped them out from the Gulf of Maine, the only place in the contiguous United States where these colorful seabirds breed.
Atlantic Puffins that breed on islands of the southeast coast of Scotland and nearby England declined rapidly in the mid-2000s. They recovered somewhat, but their low numbers are still a major cause for concern.
Atlantic Puffins face many threats, which shows in their declining global populations. Read on to learn more about the major causes of their alarming population decline.
Rising ocean temperatures threaten the survival of Atlantic Puffins. Increased ocean surface temperatures affect the bird’s natural food supply by causing disruptive changes to the ecosystem. The result is a lack of food in the vicinity of the nesting colonies, which ends in starving chicks. There are documented cases of complete nesting failure, where none of the birds in the colony succeed in raising a chick.
Oil spills at sea are disastrous for many seabirds and animals, including Puffins. Thousands of Puffins have died after becoming covered in oil and losing the ability to fly and feed themselves and their chicks. Oil is poisonous, and the birds also ingest it while attempting to clean themselves.
Oil spills and pollution don’t only affect the birds directly. Ocean pollution affects the entire ecosystem, which means less food and reduced nesting success.
Oil spills are not only detrimental to Puffins, but the entire ecosystem
Humans have introduced a variety of animals to the islands where Puffins nest. Rats, mink, and foxes eat adults, chicks, and their eggs. Accidental introductions have caused spectacular declines and even local extinctions in some areas.
Humans have hunted and harvested Atlantic Puffins from breeding colonies for millennia. Although it may have had minimal impacts in bygone days, the birds are affected by many modern threats, and hunting certainly does not help.
Uncontrolled access and tourism at colonies can also be risky for nesting Puffins. These birds have been known to abandon their nests if disturbed.
Close up of a Puffin perched on a rock, Handa Island, Scotland
Unsustainable fishing practices have reduced the food supply for Puffins, which can have a particularly devastating effect on breeding colony success. The birds also become trapped and drown in the nets, although this is a far less serious threat.
Puffins live and breed in parts of the world where extreme winds and freezing conditions are common occurrences. In some cases, adults die from an inability to hunt in prolonged high winds, while mass chick mortalities have been recorded due to exposure to cold, wet conditions.
Atlantic Puffin in the rain, Norway
Puffins have been hunted and harvested for their meat, eggs, and feathers for millennia. However, direct harvesting for local consumption is not the main cause of their decline. Commercial fishing practices, widespread pollution, and global temperature increases are causing their ecosystem to change and collapse, causing a direct knock-on effect for the Puffins.
Food scarcity is the greatest single threat to Atlantic Puffins. Climate change and overfishing have caused major declines in their main prey items like sand eels.
Puffin with a beak full of Sand Eels
Conservation Issues often feel out of reach for the average person, but there is always something we can do to help.
We can support programs that actively work towards Atlantic Puffin protection or look at our own footprint and reduce our use of energy, plastics, chemicals, and unsustainable seafood products.
Puffins nest in remote places, but counting breeding birds has given scientists a fair idea of their total population. Let’s take a look at the estimated population sizes of the world's three Puffin species:
Puffins nest in large colonies on islands and rocky coastlines. Visiting these areas during the breeding season will almost guarantee sightings. These birds disperse and hunt offshore over the open ocean during the rest of the year, which makes them scarce and more difficult to spot.
Atlantic Puffins are widespread across the north Atlantic Ocean during the winter, but Iceland stands out as a global hotspot for the species during the breeding season. More than half of the world's breeding birds visit nesting colonies around the island each year.
Close up of a Puffin colony in Iceland
Atlantic Puffin hunting is still legal in Iceland and the Faeroe Islands. However, killing these protected birds in the United States and the United Kingdom is against the law.
Atlantic Puffins enjoy the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the United States and the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 in the UK.
Puffins are a traditional food source in Iceland and are even available at some restaurants today. These birds, known locally as ‘Lundi’, are a big tourist drawcard to the island.
Puffins are not extinct. However, the Atlantic Puffin is threatened and will likely become extinct if its continued decline goes unchecked. Such a tragedy would make them one of several seabirds that have gone extinct in the last few hundred years.
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