Watchbird January 2022

Prior to breeding season, puffins transform from their subdued winter gray and black plumage to their more distinct “ Clown of the Sea ” breeding ap- pearance. Their lightly colored legs brighten to a

Puffins in Trouble Atlantic puffin populations in the East Coast of the United States have been on a roller coaster of de- cline and recovery for at least the last 200 years. Puffins have historically fallen victim to human im- pacts such as overfishing, egging, baiting, feather hunts, and the rise of natural predators like gulls. On the southernmost edge of the natural population range, puffins historically nested on coastal islands off Maine. During the 1800s, hunters collected birds in large numbers directly from the islands. There are many disturbing and descriptive accounts of herring nets covering puffin burrows to capture the animals as they exited their nests (Kress and Jack- son, 2020). Seabirds were targeted heavily. “ With the rise of commercial fishing, island sanctuaries became slaughterhouses. Prized for their eggs, feathers, oil, and flesh, seabirds were decimated by fishermen and their dependents. ” [AS3] (Bolster, 2008). By the late 19th century, puffins were nearly extinct from Maine ’ s coast. Unfortunately, despite protections including hiring wardens to protect the birds, state and federal laws, and the distinction of National Wildlife Refuges, puffins did not return naturally. Even decades later, there were just a few dozen pairs in the Gulf of Maine, leaving the population too small to be sus- tainable against natural threats (Kress and Jackson, 2020).

Photo by Aimee Milarski

bold orange. Their dull gray cheeks molt into an illuminating white. Bill plates and eye ornaments develop and their rictal roseates swell. Puffins even molt their primary and secondary feathers, leaving them flightless for a span of time. Although the tim- ing of this process is not greatly understood and seems to vary geographically, it appears birds are flightless for approximately one month. It is be- lieved that the birds must be out on open water dur- ing this time to escape predators and this happens between September and March. (Gaston & Jones, 1998). (See Figure 1 Molt Sequence page 14) Puffins are socially monogamous with breeding site fidelity and typically return to the location where they were reared (Gaston & Jones, 1998). The mon- omorphic pairs share nest building for the single egg and chick rearing duties equally. The precocial chick hatches after an incubation period of 36 to 45 days. Over the next 35 days, the chick ’ s warm natal down will give way to pennaceous feathers. At the time of fledging, chicks will be mostly waterproof apart from some animals that may have tufts of downy feathers remaining on the head or back (Vernooij, 2016). (Figure 2 Feather Development page 15)

Atlantic puffin chick ‘ Orzo ’ Hatched September 19, 2021

Photo by Kirby Pitchford

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AFA Watchbird 13

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