Puffin Therapy

The Atlantic puffin simply vanishes for months at a time. But when it returns to land, the fearless, clown-faced seabird is a sight that soothes the soul of many a bird-watcher.

This story appears in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Here they come, wings beating like a manic pulse, bodies a blur of black and white, a flash of orange from beaks cartoonishly large. Cliff tops, empty and dark for months, turn to commotion near the beginning of April with the arrival of antic, adorable-looking Atlantic puffins.

Smallest of the four puffin species, they have come en masse to breed on Britain’s rumpled islands and coasts, the more remote, unpeopled, and predator free, the better. No one is certain precisely how and where Fratercula arctica (“little friar of the Arctic,” so named for its monkish, dark-colored hood) spends the rest of the year. They are somewhere in the vast northern seas, solitary, almost never seen, as they fly, feed, and float.

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Ah, but spring. It’s like carnival time for puffins. Breeding is the only excuse for these seabirds to go on land. They become intensely social, courting, mating, tussling. Assemblages vary from a few hundred pairs in Maine to tens of thousands in Iceland. The British Isles, scene of Danny Green’s photographs, attract about 10 percent of an estimated 20 million Atlantic puffins (nobody really knows), with Iceland claiming almost half.

For the breeding season puffins change their costume. Their beaks grow thicker and brighter, white feathers replace black ones, and eye ornaments appear, the face now like a Kabuki actor’s. After pairing up, often with the same partner as in previous years, puffins use that gaudy beak and their webbed feet to dig a burrow in the soft earth. (In some locations the birds nest among rocks and boulders.) The female lays one egg, which the male and female take turns incubating under a wing. They share feeding duties too; the female makes the most trips, racing back from the water with beakfuls of fish, intent on avoiding gulls, skuas, and other aerial pirates.

Unlike penguin colonies, often cramped, loud, and peckish, a puffin gathering is mostly mellow and quiet. In the British Isles, where puffins have not been hunted for a century (puffin hunting remains legal in Iceland), the seven-inch-tall birds can be remarkably tame, tolerating human visitors. Iain Morrison, who for 42 years has taken birders to the Treshnish Isles in Scotland, says he can’t help noticing that “communing with puffins makes people happy. I call it puffin therapy.”

Concern, however, is starting to shadow the faces of those who study puffins. In the past decade most populations have been declining. Certain colonies in Iceland, Norway, and likely Scotland’s Shetland Islands have in some years produced almost no young. The favored small fish, like sand eels, sprat, and herring, are becoming scarcer and even smaller. Warming water temperatures appear to be upsetting the food chain.

Mike Harris, who studies the colony on Scotland’s Isle of May, says bluntly, “Puffins are having problems raising chicks.” Reaching an average of 30 years, puffins, like all long-lived birds, “can afford to skip the breeding cycle for a few years until conditions improve,” he says. “But the current long run of low success is going to affect the total population.”

In the meantime there’s cause for celebration at a few sites, such as Skomer Island in Wales. For reasons not totally understood, puffin numbers here are increasing, the burrows full. Come August, the colony’s chicks reliably depart, waddling down the steep slopes to swim and fly away, facing many cold months on their own. They know their way back. And if you’re a puffin, how can you pass up a crowd in springtime?

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