Puffling Patrol

Children Releasing Pufflings, Iceland; Photo Credit: Chris Linder, Smithsonian
Puffins are small seabirds who spend their entire lives at sea — with the exception of the breeding season when parental duties keep both parents busy feeding and caring for their chick and taking turns at forays out to sea for food. With just one precious egg per nest, there must be precision in the timing of the nesting season, and there is intense pressure for the one baby, or puffling, to survive to fledging (first flight).


When pufflings take their maiden voyages, it’s typically at night. They lift off from the land above their burrows in the grassy cliffs into the wind to go straight out to sea where they spend most of their lives. These birds rely on darkness to help them navigate the starry skies above the oceans. The kind of natural darkness which reveals the stars easily is disappearing rapidly around the globe, and this is having some serious impacts on birds and other wildlife. Even the lights in small fishing villages near nesting rookeries can confuse the young birds, and they find themselves not diving into the water, but flying towards and village lights and dropping onto the ground. Their physical structure which is made for water acrobatics makes it impossible for them to take off again, so after 6 weeks of waiting for their first launch over the sea, they find themselves helpless and on the ground. But the human inhabitants of at least one small Icelandic town unite to get as many pufflings as possible, who are distracted and downed by their village lights, safely out to sea.


The village of Vestmannaeyjabaer, on the tiny island of Heimaey, is all about Puffins – they are everywhere – statues, signs and the birds themselves on the nearby cliffs. So its no surprise that the villagers are proud to gather together each year to help the baby puffins who find themselves in a hopeless situation. When the pufflings fledge, their parents have already departed. For those attracted to the village lights, their only hope for survival is the villagers. In some ways, it’s every child’s dream – being able to stay up most of the night to rescue adorable baby birds. And everyone, from some of the youngest children to the oldest elders, joins in to make sure as many of their pufflings as possible make it to the sea so they can come back from their pelagic wanderings and breed in the grassy cliffs a couple of years later. To read more about this story of a town united to help baby birds, and the challenges facing puffins, check out this article from Smithsonian Magazine.